Deep below your muscles, your organs (kidneys, heart, brain, liver and lungs) work hard to keep you healthy, fit and strong. They may not be sexy, but together, they team up as your inner support network to keep your body working smoothly and efficiently. When they’re in top shape, so are you, so give them your full attention with these expert tips.
Your Brain: The Micro-Manager
The Science: No other organ does as much as the three-pound spongy mass made up of billions of neurons, also known as your brain. As the most complex living structure in the universe, your brain regulates all your body’s activities, from your thoughts and memories to your heart rate, balance, posture and even immune response. “Everything talks to the brain,” says Thom Lobe, MD, founder of Beneveda Medical Group in Beverly Hills. Take good care of it and the rest of your body will listen up.
Boost Your Brainpower: One of the best ways to turn up your brainpower is to get moving, studies show. Each time you exercise, you increase the flow of oxygen to your brain, which allows it to function optimally, and can result in improved memory, focus and clarity (something you definitely need for a great sweat session!). To further increase your gains, take your workouts outdoors once per week — it can increase your memory and attention by 20 percent, say University of Michigan researchers. Head for a hike, try an outdoor yoga class or gather your gal pals for a weekend of kayaking.
Studies have shown that your brain uses 20% of your body's energy, but makes up only 2% of your body's weight.
Bonus Tip: Fatty acids are important for the development of nerve fibers in the brain. Get them by snacking on walnuts.
Your Kidneys: The Filter
The Science: Your kidneys are a pair of bean-shaped organs, each about the size of a fist, which serve an important role in your active lifestyle: they filter out waste products from your blood, release hormones that help regulate your blood pressure, and help your body hold on to the right amount of fluid. The kidneys play a vital role for women who hit the gym, as they also help to keep your blood minerals (such as sodium, phosphorous and potassium — which are often lost through sweating during exercise) balanced.
Keep Your Kidneys Fit: To show your kidneys some love, drink enough water to stay hydrated, says Elizabeth Roth, MD, an internist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Keeping your body hydrated will aid your kidneys in balancing your blood minerals. In normal circumstances, the kidneys regulate electrolyte levels, but if you’re severely dehydrated, you can experience electrolyte abnormalities, which can lead to cramps and muscle soreness (and in the most serious cases, heartbeat irregularities). The amount of water you need will depend on a variety of factors, but make sure you’re drinking more on the days when the temperature is hot, when you’re sweating harder and when you’re training longer and at a higher intensity. For an idea of how hydrated you are, check the toilet bowl. It may sound wacky, but urine that is pale (almost clear) in color is a good indicator that you’re well hydrated, says Roth.
Your entire blood volume is filtered by your kidneys approximately 20 to 25 time per day.
Bonus Tip: Got a postworkout ache? Take it easy on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, says Roth. Taking too many can lead to kidney damage, especially in anyone with underlying kidney disease.
Your Lungs: The Heavy Lifters
The Science: You take over 20,000 breaths in a single day, and your lungs play an important function in every single one. They have the task of taking the oxygen from the air you breathe, getting it into your bloodstream, and then getting rid of the waste product, called carbon dioxide. During exercise, their workload increases: your breathing can go from about 12 to 20 breaths per minute (at rest), to about 35 to 45 per minute during a vigorous workout. “Lungs have a great capacity to expand their performance when needed,” says pulmonary medicine specialist Herbert Reynolds, MD, medical officer in the Division of Lung Diseases for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). But they need your help to perform their job well.
Give Your Lungs a Breather: Avoid cigarette smoke (direct or second-hand), which irritates the airways and causes inflammation and cell damage in the lungs. Because they harness the muscles in your diaphragm, core training (such as yoga and Pilates) can strengthen your lung function. Activate your core muscles with moves such as the plank and downward dog.
An estimated 90% of your lungs are filled with air, and only 10% is made up of hard tissue.
Bonus Tip: The muscles in the front and back of your chest contract and lift up your chest wall cavity, which means that strength training — especially in the chest area — can actually benefit your lungs. Some examples of exercises you can try include pull-ups and chest presses.
Your Heart: The Pump
The Science: A pump that provides the rest of your body with oxygenated blood, your heart helps keep all your other organs humming. For active women, a strong, healthy heart means a longer life! According to the American Heart Association, coronary heart disease is still the single leading cause of death in American women, so it’s important to keep your ticker just as fit as you are.
Shape Up Your Heart: Your heart is a muscle, says Jerome Fleg, MD, a cardiologist at the NHLBI. “The more fit you are, the more blood your heart pumps per beat, which means it doesn’t have to pump as many times (or work as hard) to get the blood to the tissues. “Regular cardio, such as running, using an elliptical or a stepmill at the gym (aim for 30 minutes most days of the week), increases your heart’s efficiency — exercising at 75 to 80 percent or higher of your maximum heart rate is how you get the most cardiovascular benefit. So to take care of your heart make sure that you’re not skimping on cardio.
See AlsoControl Your Cholesterol
Bonus Tip: “Keep your LDL (or ‘bad’) cholesterol under control,” Fleg says, since this lowers your risk of heart disease. Five to 10 grams of soluble fiber a day can help decrease your LDL cholesterol (oat bran cereal and steel-cut oatmeal are excellent sources).
Your Liver: The Multitasker
The Science: Your largest internal organ, your liver, is both a factory (it makes vital substances needed for digestion and clotting) and a purifier (it filters harmful substances from your blood). Especially important to women who live the Oxygen lifestyle, your liver also converts sugars into glycogen (a source of fuel during exercise) and gathers and stores essential vitamins that your body needs.
Love Your Liver (Really!): “Being overweight increases the risk of developing a fatty liver. When the liver has too much fat, it becomes enlarged, in some cases even causing damage to liver cells, Roth says. To prevent this, keep your weight in a normal range, and if you have been told that your triglycerides (a form of blood fat) run too high, try to reduce these numbers through exercise and a clean diet devoid of refined carbohydrates.
Bonus Tip: Skip the cocktail. Alcohol is toxic to your liver and can lead to inflammation or permanent scarring of the organ. Mixing drinks with certain medications, like acetaminophen, can also damage your liver.
Studies have shown that the liver has regenerative powers; you can lose up to 25 percent of your liver and it will grow back.
Stay Lean & Keep Healthy
Extra weight can impact all your organs. For one thing, obesity can result in a large amount of fat deposits around the chest, giving the lungs less room to expand. Obesity can also result in fat deposits both in and around your organs, which can lead to an enlarged heart (and blocked arteries), a fatty liver and high blood pressure, which can lead to impaired kidney function. The bottom line? Staying at a normal weight through clean eating and regular exercise is the number-one way to keep all your vital organs happy and healthy.