I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with exercise. That is until I started researching how powerful it really is.
When I was about 6 years old, my father would take me on morning runs on the side of a busy road in my hometown of L’Aquila, Italy. He thought that I shared my grandmother’s genetics and my grandfather’s destiny for cardiovascular disease.
My father thought that if I started exercise and a controlled diet early enough, I’d have a fighting chance at counterbalancing my genetic destiny. This is how my love and hate relationship with exercise started, and how I became a people pleaser.
I spent most of my adult life chasing perfectionism, trying to be the best at things, and aiming to please any and every man that crossed my path. My perceived self-worth has always been intertwined with my physical appearance and strength.
This endless chase of perfectionism led me down many dark roads.
At 16, I was on the verge of an eating disorder. During young adulthood, I had multiple sport injuries. I was plagued by the unrelenting feeling of not being enough. And then I hit rock bottom.
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Back pain changed my ideas on exercise
While I was writing my PhD dissertation, I spent countless hours sitting and stressing about how good or bad my work was.
At the same time, I was balancing graduate school with being a new mom, and my time for training was limited.
I somehow found time to escape to the mountains on the weekends to snowboard, and lived out the classic weekend warrior approach to life.
And then the pain started. A sharp, terrible pain in my back that would cause my body to tilt on its side.
The first time it got bad, I was out of commission for about 2 months with what felt like never-ending physiotherapy sessions.
When the pain improved, I immediately reverted to adventure-seeking, and for the next few years, I went back and forth between relief and pain. As time went on, the pain became significantly more severe and more frequent.
I played this push-pull game with pain until the last time — the time when I was stuck, tilted sideways, for about 3 months. The physiotherapy sessions would not work anymore, nor the acupuncture, chiropractor, massage, or pain medication.
I ended up lying on the floor for weeks unable to walk. Several emergency department visits and milligrams of anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, and opioids later, I finally received an emergency L4-L5 microdiscectomy.
I was told to not exercise for 3 months after surgery. And this time I listened. I let my body relax, I did not check the scale or mirror too often, and I battled any feelings of guilt that would arise.
I let myself heal fully and completely for the first time ever. Only at this point did my relationship with exercise change. I started to think of exercise as a medicine, not as a means to an unattainable goal.
Realizing the power of exercise
The irony of it all is that when my back pain started, I had just begun a new position in a laboratory researching the effects of aerobic exercise. We studied exercise as a strategy to slow down and prevent the onset of dementia.
I’m a researcher for a living. My background is in cognitive neuroscience, or more simply, the science that studies how the brain works. My main research interest lies in the relationship between exercise, sleep, and cognition.
In my daily job, I explore the mechanisms for which exercise reduces blood pressure, increases blood flow and nutrients to the brain, improves sleep quality, and in turn, improves the ability of the brain to multitask, plan, and solve problems.
My research with the Brain In Motion study team, examines the effects of aerobic exercise on healthy brain aging in overall healthy, but low-active, middle-aged and older adults (1).
What did we find? Six months of aerobic exercise, starting with walks and increasing the intensity up to jogging, 3 times per week for 20–40 minutes, resulted in gains in cognition and regulation of blood flow to the brain (2).
The results were similar to those seen in individuals 5 years younger. We showed that exercise can reverse the natural effects of aging.
But what fascinated me even more was that the type of exercise they practiced for 6 months was not the type of solitary exercise that I had been doing all my life.
Instead, study participants were meeting similarly minded people three times a week to move. They were keeping each other accountable in a friendly, nonjudgmental environment.
Social exercise enhances physical gains
While talking to participants after the end of the program, they all unanimously agreed that participating in the Brain In Motion study had changed their life as a whole.
Undoubtedly, their fitness had improved, and they were better at performing activities of daily living, such as household chores and gardening. But what really made the difference was exercising together — and the support they received from researchers, trainers, and fellow participants.
The individuals that participated in the original study are currently being assessed in a 5-year follow-up study.
Although we are just starting the analyses, the initial data trends are already evident: The people who continued to exercise independently after the end of the intervention are also the ones that kept in touch with the friends made during the intervention.
The link between social interaction and maintenance of physical activity is becoming even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are gyms closed and people are being forced to explore virtual ways of being active, but social gatherings are currently prohibited.
This is a double-edged sword, especially for older adults. A series of recent studies have, in fact, pointed out how isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with reduced overall physical activity and worsening of mental health conditions in older adults (3).
Research has changed my love-hate relationship with exercise
My pain decreased when I began moving for health instead of moving out of obligation. And, after researching all the ways quality of life improves with a regular exercise routine, I now appreciate exercise in a different way.
The benefits I’ve seen firsthand are powerful:
Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise training improves blood flow to the brain and cognition, which for older adults, translates to an improved ability to do daily activities (1).Aerobic exercise improves individuals’ subjective perception of sleep quality, sleep duration, time to fall asleep, and overall efficiency (4).After 6 months of aerobic exercise, individuals show decreased oxidative stress at the cellular level, and increased antioxidant markers production (5).Individuals who participated in the exercise intervention had a better cortisol awakening response, indicating the body’s improved ability to regulate the stress hormone cortisol (6).Anecdotally, the most important factors in maintaining physical activity were accountability from peers and social interactions.
My evolving relationship with fitness
Through life experiences, pain, and research, my views and relationship with exercise have evolved. I now consider exercise my medicine, the solution to a stressful day, my primary source of energy and motivation.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have days in which I don’t feel like exercising, and I’m still learning to manage the feelings of guilt that arise when that happens. I’m still learning about balance and to listen to my body when it’s asking for a break. A massage gun is my best friend most days!
But most importantly, I am learning about self-compassion and self-love, and that is still a work in progress!
Dr. Veronica Guadagni completed her bachelor and master degrees in neuroscience at the University of L’Aquila Italy, and her PhD in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her research interests are sleep and sleep disorders, brain health, and cognition. Most recently, she has been studying the effects of aerobic exercise on brain health, with a special focus on healthy brain aging. In her spare time, she is passionate about exercise both outdoors (snowboarding, climbing, mountain biking, hiking) in the majestic Canadian Rocky Mountains, and indoors (home workouts). She’s also mom to a 7-year-old daughter and loves guinea pigs.