Most people’s fitness journeys started with a goal physique or an aim to feel fitter and stronger, but that is truly only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the benefits of exercise.
When I was out for one of my lockdown walks a few weeks back, my (clumsy) girlfriend rolled her ankle quite spectacularly in a London pothole. Thankfully she walked it off after a few steps, but after we’d finished laughing we talked about how serious it actually could have been.
It’s moments like these when the forgotten side effects of training have their biggest benefits.
Kelly works out regularly, practices yoga and lives a pretty active lifestyle all round. Because of this, when her ankle experienced unexpected trauma and force, she quite literally bounced back and sustained no damage in a situation which would certainly have hurt most other people.
It really got me thinking about all the mobility work and resistance training that she had done in the past for her physique goals, which had now saved her a few potential weeks on crutches.
So, again, what is our training really doing to us?
Well, we all know that cardio (in whatever form) trains both the cardiovascular and respiratory system, which basically means strengthening the heart and lungs. This can keep both our cholesterol and blood pressure down.
Then there’s weight/resistance training. Which is basically purposefully stressing our musculoskeletal system to cause adaptations to grow bigger and stronger.
But why is no one talking about the other layers?
The forgotten, bi-products of training.
The other adaptations which carry over much further than the aesthetics of looking fit, both of which came into play for Kelly’s dramatic fall.
Firstly we have the strengthening of the connective tissues such as tendons, ligaments and cartilage, which you’ve probably heard of before.
They’re in and around all the joints of the body and connect all the muscles and bones together to form the musculoskeletal system.
Just as we build muscle by lifting weights, we also strengthen these connective tissues by taking them through full ranges of motion with resistance, which builds up their tolerance to stress. This is key in injury prevention and just general avoidance of joint wear and tear.
So when you see someone training biceps, they are also inadvertently strengthening their bicep tendon which is going to make it more prepared for any future trauma. Although they probably aren’t doing a heavy arm day in the gym to get a tendon pump, this a huge overlooked benefit which will serve them just as well as their visible gains.
Better strength of connective tissues means stronger, more supple joints.
You are also likely to be taking your body through it’s fullest ranges of motion when you are following a strength training plan. This is key in avoiding any loss of flexibility or strength/control in your muscles’ end ranges which is very common as we age.
Another added benefit of chasing a physique goal with weight training is that you’ll probably be smoothing out any imbalances in the body.
Of course, it is only natural to have some areas weaker than others, but chasing a balanced, equal physique usually means strengthening both sides of the body and ironing out any postural issues. This is very useful in avoiding any dysfunctional, and potentially debilitating movement in the future.
Having structural balance within the body which is supported by supple and flexible connective tissues will slow down, and potentially reverse, the long term effects of common postural issues.
The other ignored benefit is even less measurable.
When we exercise our physical body, we are also training our central nervous system. This is the signalling system which the brain uses to ask our muscles to contract with every movement we make.
There are many benefits of keeping this system engaged with a challenging and varied training programme, including concentration and focus- both of which carry over exceptionally well into day-to-day life.
The other thing we develop alongside this strengthened nervous system is better proprioception which is basically our awareness of our own movement and bodily position in space. This can mean better balance, reactions and overall stability.
Aside from this, there is a certain degree of mental development which comes from the actual decision to undertake certain exercises, building a strong and resilient mindset.
Pushing your body to reach new levels, be it with challenging weights or cardio, taps into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which you’ve probably heard referred to as your ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. This takes a considerable amount of mental strength, whilst also being energising and often liberating due to adrenaline surges.
Athletes who are well practiced controlling themselves in this ‘fight or flight’ mode are likely to be calmer and think clearer when this response kicks in for other situations, from the potentially serious stuff, to avoiding the jitters before a work presentation.
Of course there are other types of exercise which are going to trigger other responses.
Living in 2020 has basically stressed out the entire world.
Other training types such as yoga, mobility work, light aerobic activity or stretching can tap into the parasynthetic nervous system (PNS) which is the opposite of ‘fight or flight’. This has often been referred to as ‘rest and digest’.
This response in the body increases intestinal and gland activities and relaxes the muscles which is excellent for recovery, as well as aiding some of the body’s natural functions which can be blocked by stress such as nutrient absorption and digestion.
The healthiest people I know are those that are able to listen to their body and understand which system to tap into to best help themselves based on their current needs.
So actually, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that some of the best benefits of exercise are the ones most people never actually get round to considering, until they roll their ankle and fall over in the street.