Ever wonder why you feel so great after you break a sweat? Turns out, exercise isn't just an effective flab-fighter -- it's a remedy for pretty much any troubling health issue you are facing: anxiety, insomnia, back pain -- even hot flashes. "When it comes to preventing health problems, exercise is one of the best medicines we have," says David Katz, M.D., founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. But some workouts are better than others for healing what ails you. Try these active solutions.
A proven way to ease anxiety naturally is with a bout of cardio, says Michael Otto, Ph.D., co-author of Exercise for Mood And Anxiety. Getting your heart pumping increases the release of mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters, like serotonin, norepinephrine and GABA, which is why you can feel like you're sweating off stress during Spinning class. The good vibes continue: A study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that doing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (jogging, not sprinting) makes you more resilient against stressors hours later, like preparing for that big meeting with your boss. And over the long term, "people who work out consistently report less overall stress, anxiety and depression," Otto says.
Your Fitness Rx: Do a quick blast of cardio on the morning of a hectic day, or to unwind at the end of one. If possible, take it outside -- numerous studies show that fresh air provides a big mood boost.
Instead of leaning on caffeine (which can prevent you from falling asleep later, causing drowsiness again the next day), get moving. Folks who meet the recommended physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes a week are 65 percent less likely to feel tuckered out during the day, a 2011 study found. "Exercisers fall asleep faster, suffer fewer middle-of-the-night wake-ups and have a reduced risk of sleep disorders," says study co-author Brad Cardinal, Ph.D., co-director of the sport and exercise psychology program at Oregon State University.
Translation? You'll snooze more soundly and feel more energized on the go. "We aren't sure why activity primes your body for sleep so well, but it's likely a combination of factors, including lowering your core body temperature, increasing the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin and supporting a biological need to restore energy levels and repair cells and tissues when you sleep," Cardinal says.
Your Fitness Rx: Aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate activity. Try to work in some yoga; a 2012 study found that practicing yoga along with deep-breathing techniques relieved insomnia within four months. Wrap up your workout at least three hours before you hit the sack: Exercise can be too stimulating near bedtime.
The supporting muscles around your spine become less resilient with age; sitting hunched over a computer all day weakens them further. But the new thinking is that rest isn't usually the answer. "Research has shown that a better fix, in most patients, is strength training," advises Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., an exercise scientist at Quincy College in Massachusetts. "It can lessen pain by 30 to 80 percent in 10 to 12 weeks." Developing your lower-back, abdominal and oblique muscles takes pressure off your spine and improves range of motion, both preventing and treating pain.
Your Fitness Rx: Two or three days a week of strength-training exercises, focusing on major muscle groups (try the chest press, leg press and seated row) and lower-back and ab work (the lower-back-and-ab machine). Aim for 2 to 4 sets of 8 to 16 reps each.
Low Sex Drive
Look no further than your local gym: In a Journal Of Sexual Medicine study, women who hit the treadmill for 20 minutes were more physiologically aroused while viewing an erotic video than the group that didn't work out. "Exercise increases circulation to every area of your body," explains ob-gyn Alyssa Dweck, M.D., co-author of V Is for Vagina, and that makes us more game for bedroom action. Mentally, regular workouts may help us get over body hang-ups, she adds. And the feel-good endorphins released during exercise can bust through fatigue or stress that drags down sex drive. (Having increased stamina won't hurt, either.)
Your Fitness Rx: Add workouts that get your heart pumping and put you in touch with your body, like Latin dance or Zumba (try Cheryl Burke's salsa workout on page 102). Dr. Dweck also recommends yoga positions that increase blood flow to the pelvic area.
If you've been using willpower to resist those 3 p.m. chocolate urges -- and failing miserably -- try a little activity instead. Here's why: "In the throes of a craving, your brain is saying 'feed me dopamine!' -- that neurotransmitter that taps into the reward center of your brain. You can satisfy the call with carbs -- or with exercise," says John Ratey, M.D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise And The Brain. Both fixes raise your dopamine levels significantly, but only one will have a favorable effect on your tush.
Your Fitness Rx: When you get the vending machine crazies, take 15 minutes and go for a brisk walk, which was shown in recent research to be all it takes to short-circuit food cravings.
During menopause and the years leading up to it, 80 percent of women will suffer from symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. Exercise helps you maintain a healthy BMI -- crucial if you're feeling the heat, since overweight women report more severe symptoms -- and dials down stress, which can trigger flashes, says Dr. Dweck. It doesn't take much: One 30-minute walk or run on the treadmill quelled hot flashes by up to 74 percent over a 24-hour period, according to a study published in the journal Menopause.
Your Fitness Rx: Cardio is crucial if you're dealing with the big M. Aim for 30 minutes, five days a week.
Weak Immune System
Aerobic workouts are a natural cold-fighter, coaxing immune cells out of body tissues and into the bloodstream, where they attack invading viruses and bacteria, explains David Nieman, Ph.D., a professor at Appalachian State University, whose research shows that five days of cardio a week reduced sick days by 43 percent.
Your Fitness Rx: Workouts that raise your heart rate can improve immunity. Good options: Jog, cycle or take a dance class. Or, try a circuit workout (with little or no rest in between exercises) for 30 minutes on most days of the week. (Avoid intense exercise beyond 90 minutes, since that can increase your risk of getting sick.) That little commitment is all you need to score a big health payoff.
"How To Fix Health Problems With Exercise" originally appeared on Health.com
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Improved Sexual Function
Here's a motivating reason to get moving: regular physical activity can increase blood flow in a way that has a direct affect on sexual function, explains <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md" target="_hplink">HuffPost blogger</a> David Katz, M.D., founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center At Griffin Hospital. In fact, a recent study published by Emory University researchers in the <em>Journal of Sexual Medicine</em> identified a link between physical activity and erectile function among men between the ages of 18 and 40. "The men in our study who exercised more seemed to experience a protective benefit against erectile dysfunction," study co-author Wayland Hsiao, assistant professor of urology at Emory School of Medicine, <a href="http://www.emory.edu/EMORY_REPORT/stories/2012/01/research_exercise_enhance_sexual_function_men.html" target="_hplink">said in a statement</a>. "We hope that early screening for ED may be a gateway issue to help motivate young men to live healthily on a consistent basis so that they can possibly avoid health issues associated with a sedentary lifestyle, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We see this as just the beginning."
Changes In Gene Expression
In the burgeoning field of epigenetics, scientists are discovering how <a href="http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1952313,00.html" target="_hplink">environmental factors</a>, including diet, stress and toxins, can change the way our genes are expressed, essentially turning certain genes on or off, and affecting which are passed down from generation to generation. One factor that can play a role? Exercise. Two recent studies have illustrated just how regular physical activity can affect gene expression. The first study, conducted by Swedish researchers illustrated how inactive young adults demonstrated an immediate shift in their muscle cells' genetic material after just a few minutes on a stationary bicycle, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/06/exercise-changes-your-dna_n_1324452.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost reported</a> when the findings were released. The second study, conducted by researchers from the Harvard School Of Public Health, found that walking an hour a day can <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/walking-obesity-genetic_n_1345224.html" target="_hplink">slash genetic tendencies toward obesity</a>. We'll walk to that!
Sweating it out could help you get your glow on post-workout, too. As Dr. Katz explains, your skin is the largest organ in your body. And as we slough off tons of skin cells each day, we need to give our body the right construction materials -- healthy foods, regular exercise, plenty of oxygen -- to rebuild. " If you've got good construction material," he says, "you can build healthy skin cells and you have good skin." Skin also tells the story of what's going on inside your body. "The skin is the window dressing. It's really reflective of overall health," Katz says. And that means if your body's natural detoxification system is healthy, including the kidneys, liver and spleen, it'll translate into a healthy looking glow. Those body-sculpting benefits of working out don't hurt either. "Skin draped over muscle looks great, skin draped over an excess of subcutaneous fat, not so much," Katz says.
Here's a health shocker: moving your feet may have health benefits all the way up to your eyes. According to a recent paper published in the journal <em>Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science</em>, <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111024133028.htm" target="_hplink">regular exercise may be linked</a> to a lowered risk of developing glaucoma. Researchers, evaluating 5,650 men and women between the ages of 48 and 90, found that people who engaged in moderate physical exercise 15 years prior had a <a href="http://www.ahaf.org/glaucoma/newsupdates/physical-fitness-could-have-a.html" target="_hplink">25 percent reduced risk</a> of low ocular perfusion pressure, a risk factor for glaucoma. "It appears that OPP is largely determined by cardiovascular fitness," author Paul J. Foster, M.D. Ph.D., of the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111024133028.htm" target="_hplink">said in a statement</a>. "We cannot comment on the cause, but there is certainly an association between a sedentary lifestyle and factors which increase glaucoma risk."
Breaking a sweat during the day may just mean better beauty sleep at night. According to a large study published last year in the journal <em>Mental Health and Physical activity</em>, people who exercised at a moderate or vigorous level for at least 150 minutes a week (that's just over 20 minutes a day) <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1755296611000317" target="_hplink">reported 65 percent better sleep quality</a> than their more sedentary peers. "Increasingly, the scientific evidence is encouraging as regular physical activity may serve as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to improve sleep," study author Brad Cardinal, a professor of exercise science at Oregon State University <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111122143354.htm" target="_hplink">said in a statement</a> when the findings were released. And that, in turn, could have a whole host of additional benefits, as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/28/exercise-sleep-quality-moderate-weekly_n_1116315.html" target="_hplink">poor quality sleep</a> has been linked to increases in inflammation, high blood pressure, and increased blood glucose levels in people diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes.
A Sharper Brain
Looking at your body holistically, what's healthy for the whole body -- good nutrition, plenty of rest, supportive relationships -- is also good for the brain, explains Katz. And the same goes for regular exercise. "If something is good for your brain, it's probably good for you," he told The Huffington Post. "And if it's not good for you, it's probably not good for your brain." In the short term, exercise means increased blood flow to the brain, which can help you stay sharper. So instead of taking that coffee break, which provides an artificial stimulant to help you focus in the short-term, consider a walk instead. "Exercise does the same thing and it confers a lasting benefit into the bargain," he says. (Added bonus: <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/13/sitting_n_1202800.html#s608680&title=It_Ups_Diabetes" target="_hplink">sitting for too long</a> has been associated with a host of health problems, including increased diabetes and cancer risk.) In fact, one Swedish study published last year in the <em>Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine</em> found that taking exercise breaks at work for two-and-a-half hours a week was associated with improvements in productivity. Physical fitness also has brain benefits in the long term, as well. Studies have linked regular activity to <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110907163919.htm" target="_hplink">decreased risk of dementia</a> and <a href="http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/news/20070313/get-fit-improve-memory" target="_hplink">improved memory</a>.
Roughly 36 million people in the United States suffer from migraines, <a href="http://www.migraineresearchfoundation.org/about-migraine.html" target="_hplink">according to the Migraine Research Foundation</a> -- and the oftentimes debilitating headaches take their toll in more than 113 million lost work days each year. Characterized by <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/migraine-headache/DS00120" target="_hplink">intense pain in one side of the head</a> and often joined by symptoms of nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound, migraines tend to run in families and are <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/migraine-headache/DS00120/DSECTION=causes" target="_hplink">triggered by a variety of factors</a>, from foods to stress to environmental changes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Treatments can include drugs taken at the onset of an attack and preventive medications -- and a recent, small study suggests that exercise may be just as effective at the latter. The findings, published in the journal, <em>Cephalalgia</em>, suggest that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/11/exercise-migraines-prevention_n_1003794.html" target="_hplink">regular physical activity may be able to prevent migraines</a> as well as drugs or relaxation therapy, The Huffington Post reported when the study was released last year.
The brunt of flu season may be behind us, but regular, moderate exercise may help us to stave off a springtime cold by <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10894093/ns/health-cold_and_flu/t/working-out-may-help-prevent-colds-flu/#.T2vztWJAaOF" target="_hplink">upping the body's defenses against viruses and bacteria</a>. A sedentary person is likely to catch two to three upper respiratory tract infections each year, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/07/exercise-immunity_n_1190296.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost reported earlier this year</a>, but a moderately active person can cut that number by close to a third. But the effect reverses in the case of intense exercise -- marathoners, for instance, may have a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/07/exercise-immunity_n_1190296.html" target="_hplink">two-to-six-fold increase in contracting an upper respiratory tract infection</a> in the weeks following a race.
A Sunnier Disposition
As much as we all sometimes dread the prospect of working out, the truth is that you'll actually <em>feel</em> better after you're done. Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that produce a sense of euphoria in the brain. (Who can forget the <a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250494/quotes" target="_hplink">famous <em>Legally Blonde</em> quote</a>: "Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don't shoot their husbands, they just don't." Just us?) Recent research has further confirmed the link between working out and happiness -- last month, Penn State researchers published findings suggesting that <a href="http://journals.humankinetics.com/jsep-current-issue/jsep-volume-33-issue-6-december/the-dynamic-nature-of-physical-activity-intentions-a-within-person-perspective-on-intention-behavior-coupling" target="_hplink">people who are more physically active</a> reported greater general feelings of excitements and enthusiasm, The Huffington Post reported when the study was published. "Our results suggest that not only are there chronic benefits of physical activity, but there are discrete benefits as well," study researcher Amanda Hyde, a kinesiology graduate student at Penn State, <a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-02/ps-pay020812.php" target="_hplink">said in a statement</a>. "Doing more exercise than you typically do can give you a burst of pleasant-activated feelings. So today, if you want a boost, go do some moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise."
Could daily workouts be the real fountain of youth? Maybe so. A Taiwanese study published last year in The Lancet suggests that even just 15 minutes of physical activity a day can <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/16/15-minutes-daily-exercise-live-longer_n_928137.html" target="_hplink">extend life expectancy by three years</a>, compared to people who didn't exercise.