ALBANY, N.Y. — We all know exercise is good for your heart, but few of us think about the benefits exercise has on your brain, or, for that matter, your endocrine system.
But research shows that regular physical activity stimulates hormones throughout the body, helping maintain your body's sense of equilibrium and well-being.
In addition to all the other benefits of fitness, exercise has the power to keep your body's hormones in balance, particularly insulin, says Dr. Gregg Gerety, an endocrinologist here.
During physical activity, a number of hormones come into play, Gerety says. First, there's the stress hormones, or catecholamine class, including epinephrine — or adrenaline — norepinephrine and cortisol, which help prepare the body to meet challenges. Also called the "fight or flight" hormones, these adrenal chemicals give you a boost of energy and help your body deal with the physical strain of exercise, Gerety says.
Insulin is another hormone that responds to exercise. This hormone is produced in the pancreas and controls metabolism. Insulin isn't released in response to exercise, however it does fall a little, and lower insulin levels may help patients lose weight.
This is because insulin causes the body to use glucose from the blood; when insulin levels are low, the body turns fat into energy for the cells.
In diabetes patients, the body isn't able to control its own insulin levels, and often must resort to external applications of insulin. Aerobic exercise has been found to be extremely good for diabetes patients because it helps them become more sensitive to their own insulin levels, Gerety says. He prescribes about 30 minutes of cardio a day, five times a week, to help control diabetes.
Exercise also stimulates the enkephalins, or endorphins. These feel-good chemicals are natural hormones the body makes in response to exercise, Gerety says. As a result, exercise produces a subtle yet pronounced sense of euphoria that keeps us coming back for more, Gerety says.
According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise can help treat depression and anxiety, and research suggests that it is because it boosts these feel-good chemicals, the body's natural mood-enhancers. Exercise also helps reduce cortisol levels, which could be another factor in the fight against depression.
Testosterone, the male hormone, also contributes to a sense of well-being and helps build muscle mass.
A lack of any of these hormones could make exercise very difficult for people, says Gerety. They might have no interest in exercise, or tire very easily during their workout. This inertia or lassitude can lead to weight gain, and in turn, other health problems. If you suspect a hormone condition, Gerety advises, bring it to the attention of your primary care physician. He or she may prescribe testing, including checking thyroid function, testosterone levels, diabetes testing and perhaps even cortisol levels. Depending on the results, you may need to consult with an endocrinologist, he says.
TIPS FOR EXERCISING
Here are some tips for exercise success:
—If you've been sedentary for a long time, are overweight, have a high risk of coronary heart disease or some other chronic health problem, see your doctor for a medical evaluation before beginning a physical activity program.
—Choose activities that are fun, not exhausting. Add variety. Develop a repertoire of several activities that you can enjoy. That way, exercise will never seem boring or routine.
—Wear comfortable, properly fitted footwear and comfortable, loose-fitting clothing appropriate for the weather and the activity.
—Find a convenient time and place to do activities. Try to make it a habit, but be flexible. If you miss an exercise opportunity, work activity into your day another way.
—Use music to keep you entertained.
—Surround yourself with supportive people. Decide what kind of support you need. Do you want them to remind you to exercise? Ask about your progress? Participate with you regularly or occasionally? Allow you time to exercise by yourself? Go with you to a special event, such as a 10K walk/run? Be understanding when you get up early to exercise? Spend time with the children while you exercise? Try not to ask you to change your exercise routine? Share your activity time with others. Make a date with a family member, friend or co-worker. Be an active role model for your children.
—Don't overdo it. Do low- to moderate-level activities, especially at first. You can slowly increase the duration and intensity of your activities as you become more fit. Over time, work up to exercising on most days of the week for 30-60 minutes.
—Keep a record of your activities. Reward yourself at special milestones. Nothing motivates like success!