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Interface Focus. 2014 Oct 6;4(5):20140040. doi: 10.1098/rsfs.2014.0040.

Biological mechanisms underlying the role of physical fitness in health and resilience.

Author information

1
Consortium for Health and Military Performance, Department of Military and Emergency Medicine , Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences , Bethesda, MD 20814 , USA.

Abstract

Physical fitness, achieved through regular exercise and/or spontaneous physical activity, confers resilience by inducing positive psychological and physiological benefits, blunting stress reactivity, protecting against potentially adverse behavioural and metabolic consequences of stressful events and preventing many chronic diseases. In this review, we discuss the biological mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of physical fitness on mental and physical health. Physical fitness appears to buffer against stress-related disease owing to its blunting/optimizing effects on hormonal stress responsive systems, such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system. This blunting appears to contribute to reduced emotional, physiological and metabolic reactivity as well as increased positive mood and well-being. Another mechanism whereby regular exercise and/or physical fitness may confer resilience is through minimizing excessive inflammation. Chronic psychological stress, physical inactivity and abdominal adiposity have been associated with persistent, systemic, low-grade inflammation and exert adverse effects on mental and physical health. The anti-inflammatory effects of regular exercise/activity can promote behavioural and metabolic resilience, and protect against various chronic diseases associated with systemic inflammation. Moreover, exercise may benefit the brain by enhancing growth factor expression and neural plasticity, thereby contributing to improved mood and cognition. In summary, the mechanisms whereby physical fitness promotes increased resilience and well-being and positive psychological and physical health are diverse and complex.

KEYWORDS:

autonomic nervous system; exercise; hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis; inflammation; neuroplasticity; stress

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