I hardly need to remind any of our readers that movement is the single most important thing you can do for your future health, surpassing every supplement, every sleep aid and almost every dietary intervention.
As the days shorten and darken, exercise is sometimes the first thing to go. And yet barely a week goes by without a new study on the near-miraculous powers of movement popping into my in-box. I read every one of them. Why? Because homo sapiens has an innate inclination to preserve energy by … not moving. I’m no different. When it’s dark, wet and I’m drowning in work, Christmas preparations (etc etc), I too need constant reminders to get up, get moving, get out.
And yes, outside is best. The more light we’re exposed to, the better our health – cognitive, mental and bodily.
We recently wrote about the need for morning light to set our circadian rhythms. Ten minutes is sufficient to set our internal clock on bright sunny mornings. But when it’s grey and gloomy, we need to be out for longer to get the same effects.
However, natural light has many other benefits. In this excellent YouTube tutorial, Dr Samer Hattar, the light and circadian expert at the US’s National Institute of Mental Health, discusses – among other things – the role of light in lifting our mood, staving off depression, keeping us alert and helping us to learn more effectively. So always move outside if you can. And try and sit by a window when you’re indoors.
The latest report into movement is extraordinary in its findings and beautiful in its simplicity. It turns out that as we exercise, our bodies produce cannabis-like substances (called endocannabinoids) that reduce inflammation. When Researchers at Nottingham University’s School of Medicine ran an experiment on 78 people with knee osteoarthritis, they pinpointed the gut (yes, the gut) as the pivotal place of recovery.
Of the 78 participants, 38 did 15 minutes of muscle strengthening every day for six weeks. The remaining 40 carried on as normal. Regular testing showed that those doing muscle strengthening had less pain, lower levels of inflammation and raised levels of endocannabinoids. They also had altered gut microbes. The researchers think that exercise causes our body to generate endocannabinoids, and that the endocannabinoids change our microbiome by spurring gut microbes known as short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These particular microbes calm inflammation, although no one is quite sure how. Earlier studies in both humans and animals have found similar results.
The formula is basically this: Muscle-strengthening exercise = endocannabinoids = special gut microbes = reduced inflammation.
The study author, Dr Amrita Vijay, describes endocannabinoids as ‘the body’s own cannabis-type substances,’ and suggests that we explore the use of exercise before we rush to buy CBD supplements. Wise words (to our ears, at any rate).
So what exactly was the muscle strengthening exercise used in this study? Nothing too onerous it seems: back bends, sit-to-stand rises, stair climbing and some work on the core. Not a dumbbell in sight. And only 15 minutes a day… Even the busiest of us can find a mere 15 minutes.
Exercise has already been found to help inflammatory conditions like cancer, arthritis and heart disease. We wrote about movement and cancer here. Another recent study involving over 20,000 people found that exercise reduced depression (also frequently linked to inflammation such that many doctors refer to it as another inflammatory disease). Indeed, this report found that people who exercised during recent lockdowns experienced less anxiety and depression than those who did not exercise. And those who spent more time outdoors had lower levels of anxiety and depression than those who stayed inside. So if you’re using a windowless gym, consider swapping it for outdoor exercise or for a gym with large windows. This is particularly important as we age: ‘less time outdoors leads to brain atrophy, over time and with age,’ says Dr Merrill, adult and geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Centre in California (where the weather is more conducive to outdoor time incidentally).
I’ve been reading Move: The New Science of Body Over Mind, written by science journalist, Caroline Williams. It’s a fascinating, meticulously researched exploration of the very latest research into movement, complete with useful, bite-sized summaries of the (often very simple) things we can do to coax more from our daily movement. Here are two of her tips that I’ve been incorporating into my ‘move more’ life:
Feeling stressed? Williams suggests moving on ‘Fairy Feet’, like a springy walk or silent jumping: ‘Research suggests that moving lightly on your feet is a fast way to lift mood,’ she writes. Williams also explains that ‘working on our gazelle-like springiness and learning to land silently makes for healthier connective tissues, which can feed into an overall sense of physical and mental mastery.’ Well, I’ll have some of that please!
My other tip from Williams’ book is: Work the core by …laughing. We’ve written about laughter before but Williams pulls no punches: ‘A deep belly laugh works the core muscles more effectively than sit-ups.’ I’ve been laughing a lot while reading Mia Kankimäki’s book The Women I Think About at Night. Wonderful to know I’m working my core at the same time as I’m working my brain (reading does this) while enjoying myself to boot.
If you’ve not moved while reading this post, can we politely suggest you now get up and do a few (light) jumps? Alternatively do a bit of cleaning… this article from The Guardian is a salutary reminder that even sweeping the floor can help us age well. Try jumping and laughing as you sweep for extra oomph…
GIVE-AWAY! We have one copy of Move: The New Science of Body Over Mind to give away. This prize draw is running on our Instagram account (@agewellproject). Look out for a picture of the book and reply, telling us why it’s important to keep moving. Our cut-off date is 6pm on 21 December when a name will be chosen at random.