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Fitness: Boost your mind and body with exercise

Participants during previous car free day exercises. / Photo: File.

Exercise is defined as movement that makes muscles work and requires the body to burn calories.

The term “physical activity” should not be confused with “exercise”, which is a subcategory of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and aims to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness. Beyond exercise, any other physical activity that is done during leisure time, for transport to get to and from places, or as part of a person’s work, has a health benefit, says World Health Organization. 


There are many types of exercise, including swimming, running, jogging, walking and dancing, to name a few.


Being active has been shown to have many health benefits, both physically and mentally. It may even help one live longer, according to research.


Nelson Mukasa, an expert in mass sports and the main sports instructor for the bi-monthly Kigali Car Free Day, says it’s fundamental for everyone to adopt the culture of doing or engaging in any kind of physical exercise.

For beginners, he says starting slowly is important as with time, one can find ways to fit more physical activity into their life.

To get the most out of it, he says it’s vital to get the recommended amount of exercise depending on one’s age.

“The benefits that come with doing exercise cannot be underestimated, one will feel better and on top of this, it will help prevent or control many diseases, and likely even promote a longer life,” he says.

He says exercise helps one control their weight. With a healthy diet, exercise plays an important role in controlling and preventing obesity, which has been a health issue because of a sedentary way of life.

Private Kamanzi, a nutritionist and dietician, says to maintain weight, the calories one takes in must be equal to the energy they burn.

He points out that being physically active can reduce the risk of heart disease. He explains that exercise strengthens the heart and improves circulation.

“The increased blood flow raises the oxygen levels in the body. This helps lower the risk of heart diseases such as high cholesterol, coronary artery diseases, and heart attack,” he says.

Regular exercise can also lower the blood pressure and triglyceride levels.

The triglyceride level is a blood test to measure the amount of triglycerides in the blood. They are a type of fat.

Kamanzi says the body makes some triglycerides; they also come from the food one eats.

“Extra calories are turned into triglycerides and stored in fat cells for later use. Being physically active helps the body manage blood sugar and insulin levels,” he says.

Additionally, the dietician explains that exercise can lower blood sugar levels and help insulin work well. This, he says, can cut down one’s risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

However, Kamanzi says, if one already has one of these diseases, exercise can help them manage it.

Dynamo Ndacyayisenga, the in-charge of management of alcohol and drug use disorders at Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC), says for people struggling to quit smoking, trying out different types of exercises can help.

He says that exercise may make it easier to quit smoking by reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It can also help limit the weight one might gain when they stop smoking.

How this happens, the medic explains, is that the withdrawal symptoms and cravings for cigarettes decrease during exercise. 

He goes on to add that exercise helps limit the weight some people gain when they quit smoking, and also helps them cope with stress. Besides, he says, it also helps improve one’s mood.

When it comes to mental health and mood, Ndacyayisenga says during exercise, the body releases chemicals that can improve the mood and make one feel more relaxed, which can help with stress and reduce the risk of depression.

“Exercise stimulates the body to release proteins and other chemicals that improve the structure and function of the brain,” he says.

Also, Kamanzi says regular exercise can help kids and teens build strong bones.

Later in life, he says it can also slow the loss of bone density that comes with age. Doing muscle-strengthening activities can help increase or maintain muscle mass and strength.

For older adults, research shows that doing balance and muscle-strengthening activities, in addition to moderate-intensity aerobic activity, can help reduce one’s risk of falling.

Kamanzi says exercise can help one fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. He explains that doing physical exercise can contribute to a more sound and restful sleep.

“Exercise increases time spent in deep sleep, the most physically restorative sleep phase,” he says.

Deep sleep helps to boost immune function, support cardiac health, and control stress and anxiety, according to research.

Studies show that exercise can reduce one’s risk of dying early from the leading causes of death, like heart disease and some cancers.

A healthy mind

In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.

Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment, writes Heidi Godman in the article ‘Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills’ published in Harvard Health Letter.

Make this part of your life

Mukasa says even small changes can help. For instance, he says one can take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk instead of taking a motorbike or bus, among other simple exercises that will require one to use energy.

Another strategy, he says, is being active with friends and family, adding that having a workout partner may make one more likely to enjoy exercise than when they do it alone.

Also, planning social activities that involve exercise as a team is important. This can be by joining an exercise group or class, such as a dance class, hiking club, or any other sport activity.

Also, experts say keeping track of your progress is important as it helps one set goals and stay motivated.

Making exercise fun can also help. For instance, experts say try listening to music or watching TV while you exercise.

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