Exercise is one of the Five Pillars of health and may be the most important of all. Strength training, flexibility training, and cardiovascular exercise (CE) are each important. Core strength is the best defense against spinal degeneration and chronic back pain. Flexibility training is necessary for breaking adhesions and fixations and for maintaining normal motion. And CE trains the heart and lungs, burns adipose, and lowers inflammation. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that, while each type of exercise promotes health in a slightly different way, each also facilitates the others. Increased strength and flexibility improve our ability to enjoy CE without pain and injury. Similarly, CE improves circulation and stamina, making us less prone to injury during flexibility and strength training. In a broader sense, CE supports the goals of healthy diet and proper supplementation. Together they form three of the five pillars of the Anti Inflammation Lifestyle, moving us in the right direction along the Continuum toward optimal health.
Exercise and Inflammation
Over the last two decades the role of inflammation in the progression toward disease has emerged as a primary focus of researchers and clinicians alike. While all body tissues seem to be at risk for the effects of inflammation, heart disease has been the primary focus of investigation. Today, inflammatory markers are routinely used as indicators of cardiovascular health. They act as indicators to show the amount of inflammation in the arteries and vascular system and are emerging as the best and most reliable test not only for determining whether or not a patient has suffered a cardiovascular episode such as heart attack or stroke, but also as an indicator of the level of health (or disease) in patients who have not yet suffered such an event. Chronic low grade inflammation is involved in all stages of the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis.(1) Circulating markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and interleukin-8 (IL-8) have been identified as having independent roles in this development.(2) As a result, elevated levels of inflammatory markers may serve as potential indicators of the risk of cardiovascular disease.(3) Studies have also shown that there is an inverse association between levels of physical activity and inflammatory markers(4). However, not all forms of exercise exert this anti-inflammatory effect. In a landmark study, subjects were separated into two groups: one which underwent daily cardiovascular exercise (CE), and one group which underwent flexibility and strength training exercise. At the end of ten months the CE group had reduced serum IL-6, IL-8, and CRP levels, while the flexibility and strength training group did not show any any change in inflammatory markers.(5)
How CE acts to lower inflammation is not yet completely understood. The release of inflammation suppressing hormones and/or the suppression of pro-inflammatory hormones may be part of the story. But one mechanism by which CE exerts this effect seems clear: CE causes a reduction in adipose tissue. As discussed in Part I of this series, abdominal fat (adipose tissue) releases various pro-inflammatory substances, including IL-6 and IL-8.(6) In the above mentioned study, the CE group showed a reduction in adipose after 10 months, whereas the group performing flexibility and strength training did not.
For years we have known that cardiovascuar exercise causes the release of morphine-like compounds called endorphins which cause a feeling of well-being, sometimes referred to as the ‘runner’s high.’ But recent research has also demonstrated that CE raises seratonin levels. that CE also causes an increase in mitochondria inside of brain cells.
Exercise increases the size and number of mitochondria in the brain of mice (American Journal of Physiology, September 2011). The mice ran on a treadmill for an hour a day, six days a week, for eight weeks. This could explain how exercise improves memory, treats depression, and makes people feel better and helps them to think more clearly. Until now, the leading theory to explain how exercise improves memory and treats depression was that exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, morphine-like compounds that can improve mood (Journal of Applied Physiology May 1982). However, endorphins would not explain the improvement in memory and brain function associated with a regular exercise program.
Mitochondria are tiny chambers in cells that turn food into energy more efficiently than any other process in your body. Scientists have known for years that exercise enlarges and increases the number of mitochondria in muscle cells, to increase strength, speed and endurance; but this is the first research paper to offer a plausible explanation why exercise improves memory and relieves depression.
This increase in brain mitochondria could also explain how training for sports increases endurance by making the brain resistant to fatigue. It also could explain how exercise treats mental disorders, delays aging and improves certain types of nerve damage.