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Are you familiar with the term “use it or lose it?” It’s the theory that if you don’t use an ability you possess (like playing the piano or speaking a foreign language), you will eventually lose that ability. Now, replace the word “use” with “move” — as in, “move it or lose it.” Why? Because our bodies were designed to move, and leading a sedentary lifestyle can wreak havoc on many of our bodily functions.
“Simply put, our entire foundation is based on movement,” says Ilya Fishman, an ACE-certified personal trainer who specializes in Muscle Activation Techniques. “Imagine leaving your car sit in the garage for a year — parts rust, the battery dies, and cables become dusty and worn out. If your body remains inactive for too long, your muscles atrophy and don’t function as well, your bones lose density and become more brittle, your brain function deteriorates because it lacks the daily stimulus, and your digestive system is all thrown off because motion helps to facilitate digestive function. Our entire system is built on having to move to stimulate all of our vital functions.”
Which vital systems and organs are most affected by a proclivity for inactivity? Alice Holland, DPT, director of Stride Strong Physical Therapy in Portland, Oregon, and Fishman weigh-in:
Muscle and bone generation
The growth of muscle and bone is directly dependent on the musculoskeletal stimulus brought about by bodyweight work. “The more forces the body has to fight itself against, the more stimulus our muscle and skeletal system has to build stronger,” Dr. Holland explains. “The stronger our bodies are, the better we can balance, move, walk, carry, lift, and push — pain-free.”
Digestion requires movement to be efficient. “Going back to the automobile analogy, it’s like an engine,” says Fishman. “In order for the fuel to be burned, there has to be a fire. Think of movement as that fire.”
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Blood sugar level management
“Movement helps you manage and prevent Type II diabetes, which is the single most complicating factor plaguing our medical system,” says Dr. Holland, of the disease that impedes healing, leads to blindness, and causes nerves to die. “Exercise lowers your blood-sugar levels and helps insulin work more effectively.”
Increased blood flow
Exercise heightens good cholesterol (HDL) and lowers bad cholesterol (LDL) so that less plaque develops in your arteries. “If your arteries and your pipes are clean, you reduce the likelihood of heart disease and events like heart attacks,” says Dr. Holland.
The heart needs motion to keep pumping blood efficiently, says Fishman. The better your cardiovascular strength is, the stronger the heart muscle — and you need movement to keep it strong.
Movement helps manage your stress levels and therefore is a good way to control your mood, says Dr. Holland. Endorphins rush your body and brain after exercise (think of the “runner’s high”), and this helps regulate your stress levels and prevents depression.
Increased neurological functions
Dr. Holland says movement and exercise help prevent neurological disease, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The increased dopamine and increased brain activity keep nerves in your brain healthy and your mind sharp into old age. It also reduces dementia and depression in seniors.
Reduced risk of falling
Movement and exercise strengthen the muscle and skeletal system, so if an unexpected shift in balance happens, Dr. Holland says the body is better equipped to prevent itself from falling.
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Movement also brings about circulation of vascular and lymphatic systems, says Dr. Holland, which brings oxygen and nutrients to the body tissues.
If gym workouts, sports, and physical hobbies (like hiking or cycling) are not a regular part of your routine, you can still reap the myriad benefits movement provides your body through simple daily actions — namely, going out of your way to get in as many steps as possible each day. What does this entail? Choosing the stairs over the elevator, parking further away from the door, taking a short walk before lunch, in between meetings or after dinner, playing with your kids on the playground, walking your dog and playing fetch, and walking to nearby restaurants. Every morsel of movement adds up to help your body perform at its best.