When it comes to the biggest problems in modern Western society, things like obesity, anxiety, depression, and of course, COVID-19, surely rank near the top of the list.

Every year, the United States spends $200 billion on mental health services, another $200 billion on conditions related to obesity, and has thus far spent trillions on the pandemic. 

Beyond the staggering economic cost, these issues have added an untold amount of suffering to individual lives, diminishing their quality and shortening their length.

While these maladies are different — some biological and some environmental; some mental and some physical — they could all be prevented, managed, and/or treated with the very same thing: physical activity.

That exercise has health-promoting effects isn’t a novel observation. But the idea that bodily movement is good for us typically hums unnoticed in the background of our world. 

Once you take a step back, however, and recognize the way that physical activity runs like a through line in both the causes and cures of almost everything that most plagues us, the realization is downright startling.

To wit:

Obesity and Physical Activity

Diet is often touted as the most fundamental factor in weight management and is surely where the rubber meets the road in preventing and treating obesity. But very few people are successful in significantly changing their diet . . . at least if they don’t exercise.

It’s true that exercise doesn’t help people lose a ton of weight (though the ~10-15 pound weight loss that’s been shown to be achievable through exercise alone, without any modifications in diet, is nothing to sniff at). But it’s arguably the case that people will never be able to lose weight beyond that range by altering their diet, if they don’t first prioritize regular physical activity. This is because exercise has been shown to regulate appetite, so that people are better able to naturally match their caloric intake to their caloric expenditure. Sedentary people lose this ability, and lose touch with their feelings of hunger and fullness; in fact, sedentary people eat more than active people do, despite their lower caloric needs. If people are ever going to be able to create the small caloric deficit needed to shed pounds, they must first lower their hunger signals to manageable, non-ravenous levels. Exercise gets them there.

The same appetite-regulating effect seems to be behind the fact that regular exercise has been shown to be significantly effective in preventing weight gain in the first place, and to be even more important than diet in preventing the regaining of weight after it’s been lost.

Depression and Physical Activity

Nearly 10% of Americans suffer from some form of depression each year, and the most common treatments for this condition are therapy and drugs. But studies have shown that exercise is just as effective for treating depression, and involves neither the cost of the former nor the side effects of the latter. Regular exercise has also been shown to lower the risk of becoming depressed in the first place. Exercise releases all kinds of feel-good neurochemicals, and not being obese, and consequently being able to move agilely, go after whatever pursuits you wish, feel comfortable in your skin, and experience a spring in your step does wonders for mood as well.

nxiety and Physical Activity 

Just as with depression, physical activity has been shown to not only alleviate anxiety, even if severe, but to prevent anxiety as well. This is likely due to exercise’s aforementioned ability to release feel-good neurochemicals, as well as the way in which it helps people get more comfortable with uncomfortable feelings. Anxious exercisers come to experience an elevation in breathing and heart rate as a catalyst for good outcomes and better health, rather than a distressing cause for panic. 

COVID-19 and Physical Activity

While the pandemic created universal, widespread lockdowns, researchconducted all over the world on cohorts of patients with COVID-19 have shown that the risk of being severely affected by this potentially deadly virus varies considerably. For instance, frail elderly people initially represented a large segment of patients with COVID-19 who died. However, further analyses revealed that people with obesity and other chronic conditions, such as type 2

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