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What can exercise do for you? Scientists tell us that being fit changes how our bodies burn fat, how they regulate sugar, and how they keep us well. The changes in our health that we accomplish by working out take place at a deep, molecular level
What can exercise do for you? Scientists tell us that being fit changes how our bodies burn fat, how they regulate sugar, and how they keep us well. The changes in our health that we accomplish by working out take place at a deep, molecular level-which modern medicine can track with the help of an instrument known as a mass spectrometer.

Scientists at Harvard University used mass spectrometry to measure metabolites, indicators of chemical reactions in the body, in three groups of people who exercised for a study they published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. They recruited occasional exercisers, regular exercisers, and people who had just run the Boston Marathon.

The Harvard researchers also ran tests on a group of people who had been referred to their clinic because they easily got out of breath, and their doctors wanted to know if they had heart disease. All of the volunteers had blood drawn before and immediately after doing 10 minutes of exercise on a stationary bike. Here is what the scientists found:
  • When occasional exercisers do 10 minutes of exercise, concentrations of certain chemicals associated with fat-burning go up 50 per cent.
  • When regular exercisers do 10 minutes of exercise, concentrations of certain chemicals associated with fat-burning go up 100 per cent.
  • When people who are in good enough shape to run the Boston Marathon do 10 minutes of exercise, concentrations of chemicals associated with fat-burning go up 1000 per cent.
Regular exercise doesn't just burn fat. Regular exercise burns fat a lot faster. Working out really hard builds the ability to burn fat at an extremely fast rate. And the more you exercise, the more fat-resistant you will become. But how can you go from couch potato to marathon (or maybe half-marathon, or at least 5K) runner?

Here are five tips for maximum workout health benefits that apply to people of all fitness levels.

If you want to grow muscle, lift something heavy, eat protein, drink water and repeat

If you want to grow muscle, lift something heavy, eat some protein, drink some water, get some sleep, and then repeat. Muscles are made of myofibrils, which are long strings of protein that get plumped up by glycogen, which is a chemical combination of glucose and water. If you want to grow bigger muscles, you have to stress and stretch them by lifting something that's less than so much that they tear, but more than is comfortable.
Then you have to eat some protein and a least a tiny amount of carbohydrate (think half an apple, not a bowl of ice cream), and drink some water.  The protein becomes protein in your muscles. The carbohydrate combines with water to become the glycogen that gives muscles bulk. You then need to rest 7 to 9 hours the night after exercise for maximum muscle repair.

If you want to lose weight, don't forget you still need to feed your muscles

Our bodies actually need carbohydrate, protein, and fat, just not as much as we usually feed them. Most people know that you need to do enough exercise to burn 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat (or 7,700 calories to lose a kilo of fat). Most people don't know that you need the equivalent of 2,800 calories in protein and carb to build a pound of muscle (or 6,160 calories in the form of protein and carb to build a kilo of muscle). How on earth can you manage your diet to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time?

It's not as hard as it sounds. Just don't mix foods the wrong way. It's OK, in fact, it's necessary a workout (although not at other times) to eat protein and carbohydrate at the same meal. It's also OK to eat protein and fat at the same meal. It's not OK to eat carbohydrate and fat at the same meal, because they compete for insulin, and fat will always win out. Your body is much better at storing fat than it is at storing carbs, so if you want to manage your blood sugar levels, don't eat carbs and fat at the same time.

If you aren't exercising, you don't absolutely have to eat

Conversely, when you do work out, you really need to feed your muscles shortly after you finish the exercise. That's because your muscles are about 50 times more able to take in amino acids to make proteins and glucose and water to make glycogen right after you exercise than at any other time. However, when you aren't exercising, it's actually not harmful to miss a meal. Or even two.

Many people who work out also buy into the idea that you need to eat every three hours. That's OK if you eat just a little eery three hours, but if you eat too much at any one meal, you set up a situation in which your fat cells are always taking fat in and never sending fat out. You gain muscle by exercise and nutrition, but you burn fat when you aren't storing it.

That means that to lose weight, there just has to be some time you aren't eating. If you aren't diabetic and you don’t have a liver disease that keeps it from storing energy, then you may find it easier to lose weight and gain muscle if you fast--once a week--for no more than 24 hours. You should continue to drink water, up to 8 or even 12 glasses a day--when you are not eating.

Yoga may or may not be your path to spiritual enlightenment

Yoga may or may not be your path to spiritual enlightenment. But it will give your better balance, resistance to falls and injuries, and maybe an appetite that is easier to control. For Buddhists and Hindus, yoga is all about joining the brahman (eternal) to the atman (real self). To someone watching a yoga DVD and trying to do it at home, yoga may be all about developing a "yoga booty." The fact is, yoga does not have to be a spiritual practice, although it can be, and exercise is not all about gaining muscle and losing fat.
Exercise is also about the ability to control your muscles, and to maintain balance and poise on slippery surfaces, when you are pushed or pulled, or when you are struck, either while playing a sport or in some kind of accident. Doing yoga is a great way to develop the kind of muscle control that helps you use the muscles you build through regular exercise.
Yoga lowers cortisol levels. This is the stress hormone that packs on belly fat. Yoga raises serotonin levels. This is the happiness hormone that your brain absorbs more readily with the help of sugar. Preserve serotonin levels, and you won't have as much difficulty controlling your appetite, especially in winter weather.

Just don't try to do too much too soon. And avoid inversions (yoga asanas that put the rest of your body over your head) if you are pregnant or if you have any kind of cardiovascular or eye disease.

Do both strength training and aerobic exercise on a regular basis

Running, walking, jogging, biking, swimming, and similar activities that burn oxygen all are known as aerobic exercises. There's no doubt that aerobic exercise is good for you. You get circulation going all over your body, which relieves swelling, inflammation, and irritation. You burn fat, although very, very slowly. But aerobic exercise is never enough.

Everybody needs to do muscle-building resistance exercise. This can be lifting, pulling, pushing, or resisting the force of any kind of weight. This is the kind of exercise that builds new muscle, and it's also the kind of exercise that makes the metabolism far more efficient at handling sugar, fats, and cholesterol.
What does strength training do for you? Here are the major benefits:
  • Decreases bad (LDL) cholesterol levels
  • Decreases blood pressure, both systolic (first number) and diastolic (second number)
  • Enhances agility, power, and speed
  • Enhances endurance and strength
  • Improves ability to stay involved in daily activities for longer later in life
  • Improves aerobic capacity by strengthening the muscles in and around the diaphragm
  • Improves balance (especially if you also do yoga)
  • Improves bone density and prevents osteoporosis
  • Improves glucose tolerance and reduces insulin resistance (the cause of type 2 diabetes and most midlife weight gain)
  • Improves overall body composition, increasing muscle mass, decreasing fat mass
  • Increases self-esteem
  • Lowers risk of injury in sports and daily life
  • Preserves and enhances metabolic rate, how fast your body burns calories
  • Preserves and increases your total muscle mass
Strength training can help you feel better and perform better in ways you do not know are  possible if you only get aerobic exercise. But following all five of these suggestions together is optimal for getting maximum workout health benefits.

  • Lewis GD, Farrell L, Wood MJ, Martinovic M, Arany Z, Rowe GC, Souza A, Cheng S, McCabe EL, Yang E, Shi X, Deo R, Roth FP, Asnani A, Rhee EP, Systrom DM, Semigran MJ, Vasan RS, Carr SA, Wang TJ, Sabatine MS, Clish CB, Gerszten RE. Metabolic signatures of exercise in human plasma. Sci Transl Med. 2010 May 26,2(33):33ra37.
  • Photo courtesy of Hans Gotun by Flickr :