Exercise During COVID

by Hannah Desmond

Getting out of the house has numerous benefits for your body and mind. Most people have heard that exercise strengthens your bones as a child, but did you know that it can strengthen your brain as well? Here are some examples to get you motivated and out on the trails. 


Aerobic exercise naturally increases the amount of slow wave sleep, also known as deep sleep. It does this by raising your body temperature a few degrees. Later in the day, when your body begins to cool down again, this can trigger feelings of drowsiness and help you fall asleep. Deep sleep rejuvenates your brain and body for the next day, and affects the accuracy of your memory. Deep sleep is different from REM sleep, because in REM sleep your mind is active, making dreams and reviewing the day, while in deep sleep, your body is active. The healthy adult gets 13-23% deep sleep and 20-25% REM sleep, the rest being light sleep. Exercise can also stabilize your mood, calm your mind, and set your circadian rhythm (your body's internal alarm clock) which are all critical for high quality sleep. 


Exercise is a key coping mechanism when faced with mental or emotional challenges. Recreational drugs and alcohol provide a momentary break from stress, they soon contribute to a worsening of your symptoms of depression and anxiety. Regular exercise (just 30 min a day) boosts your immune system and reduces the impact of daily stress. 


Heart disease and stroke are two of the leading causes of death in the United States, according to the CDC, getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week will put you at a lower risk for both of these diseases. Regular physical activity lowers your blood pressure, improves your cholesterol levels, and strengthens the heart. 


Your skin is affected by oxidative stress in your body. Oxidative stress is an imbalance of free radicals and unstable molecules in your body. Antioxidants are compounds designed to prevent the creation of these harmful free radicals. Oxidative stress can damage internal structures and the foundation of your skin. Regular activity can increase your body’s production of antioxidants, which help protect cells from the damages of oxidative stress. In a similar way, exercise can stimulate blood flow and help delay the appearance of skin aging. So you'll look fit and young! 


Several recent studies1 show that regular exercise can help control pain that is associated with a variety of health conditions. Conditions like chronic low back pain, fibromyalgia, and chronic soft tissue shoulder.  However, what works for one individual may not work for another, so it is wise to speak to your doctor about your activity plan before you implement it. In addition to reducing actual pain, a new study conducted in at the University of New South Wales and Neuroscience Research Australia concluded that physical activity can increase pain tolerance and decrease pain perception.5 Researchers took 12 young inactive adults who expressed interest in exercising, and another 12 who were preferred not to exercise then brought all of them into the lab to determine how they reacted to pain. Since pain response varies greatly from person to person, the scientists gathered a reliable baseline for each person then continued to measure throughout the study. Those who exercised regularly saw an increase in pain tolerance and a decrease in pain perception!


Exercise builds intelligence, strengthens memory, and increases focus. During cardiovascular exercise, the body produces new brain cells and improves brain performance all together. It also strengthens the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with forming memories and emotions, thereby preventing cognitive decline and memory loss. Physical activity also boosts creative and mental energy. 2 Which is why you see Presidents (current one excluded) prioritizing exercise into their routine so their mental stamina can keep up with the insane quantity of decision making and problem solving required as a sitting president.


Mood enhancement is an immediate product of physical activity. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins that automatically stimulate a happy euphoria, and when that fades there are long-term effects that follow. Such as alleviating long-term depression. In a study 3 conducted in 2007, scientists found the effects of regular physical activity was equivalent to antidepressants in many instances for those with depressive disorder. Not only that, but exercise could prevent relapses into bad habits and thereby had a preventative effect as well which antidepressants did not have.  


Regular weight-bering exercise helps kids and young adults to build stronger bones. Later in life, it can also slow the loss of bone density that comes along with age. Aerobic activity can also decrease the risk of osteoporosis, a disease in which bones become too brittle and break very easily. Exercise improves muscles strength, balance, and coordination, which in itself prevents falls and fractures.  


In conjunction with a healthy diet, exercise plays an essential role in managing your weight. Physical activity burns the calories you intake in order to sustain your energy output. Reducing stress helps support the right hormonal signals and balance necessary for a healthy metabolism.


By focusing in on your body and how it feels as you exercise, you can help your body move past immobilizing stress response that is characterized by trauma. Use it as a form of medication. Instead of allowing your mind to wander, pay close attention to the way your body feels as you exercise, envision your muscle strands contract and relax. Observe how your joints move and how air moves from your nose to your lungs and back out through your mouth. Outdoor activities like, hiking, mountain biking, climbing, and skiing have also been shown to reduce symptoms of PTSD. During these outdoor activities leave your ears unencumbered and listen to the wind, birds, water, and gravel/dirt under your feet with each step. Soak in each step, each moment.


1. Mior S. Exercise in the treatment of chronic pain. Clin J Pain. 2001;17(4 Suppl):S77-S85. doi:10.1097/00002508-200112001-00016

2. Walden University. Accessed August 19, 2020. https://www.waldenu.edu/online-bachelors-programs/bs-in-psychology/resource/five-mental-benefits-of-exercise 

3. Blumenthal JA, Babyak MA, Doraiswamy PM, et al. Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosom Med. 2007;69(7):587-596. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e318148c19a

4. Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Melinda Smith, M.A. Last updated: June 2019. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm

5. Jones MD, Booth J, Taylor JL, Barry BK. Aerobic training increases pain tolerance in healthy individuals. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014;46(8):1640-1647. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000000273