When we think about getting regular exercise, our focus tends to be on the number on the scale and how many plates we can put on that bench press bar. Occupational and physical therapy might be in there, too, but especially in the age of Instagram fitfluencers, many times the perceived benefits of exercise are relegated to waist circumference and muscle tone.
But the thing is, exercise is way cooler than that. Yes, we all love feeling great about how we look and being able to go on a 5 mile hike without incident. But long-term, daily exercise does amazing things far below the surface and your appearance.
Exercise & Physical Health
Aside from strength-building and waist-trimming, the physical benefits of an active lifestyle include:
Better brain health
Regular exercise is thought to be a protective factor against Alzheimer’s and dementia. Specifically, running is directly linked to new cell production in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with forming and imprinting memories.
Regular exercise strengthens your immune system, leaving you less susceptible to viruses like the flu and COVID.
The more active you are throughout the day, the more tired you’ll be once you lay down for bed. It takes you less time to fall asleep, and your sleep is more restful and restorative.
Improved heart health
Physical exertion strengthens your cardiovascular system as it works to get enough oxygen to your body via your bloodstream. Regular exercise is linked to lower LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and lower blood pressure.
If you increase your heart rate several times per week, you’ll notice you have more energy throughout the day. It may even help you fight that 2:30 feeling that comes on each afternoon.
Less risk of developing diabetes
A major cause of diabetes II is obesity; exercise helps you maintain a healthy body weight. Studies also show regular cardio increases your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels.
In order to support weight and impact capacity of exercise, your bones create more bone cells, becoming stronger and denser. This is an extremely important long-term benefit of exercise because our bones lose strength and density as we age.
In order to not become frail as you age, resistance training of some sort will be important. This means that beyond aerobics it is important to actually lift weights. And for fascia repair, leave 2 days in between exercising the same muscles.
Supports lung health
Regular physical exertion increases your body’s ability to consume and distribute oxygen via you respiratory system as well as your cardiovascular system. Exercise strengthens the lungs and diaphragm. This is why you get less winded as you get in better shape.
Overall, the physical benefits of long-term exercise increase life expectancy. Exercise helps you remain active and intact well into old age, preventing heart and lung conditions, arthritis, risks of falling, and many more physical ailments related to aging.
Mental Health & Exercise
There may be just as many mental health benefits to regular physical activity as there are physical ones. Psychological and emotional aspects exercise supports include:
In both children and adults with ADHD, regular moderate to vigorous exercise improves executive functions in the brain. This is particularly useful in children with ADHD, who are still developing motor skills and executive function.
Strenuous exercise, especially training cardio and regimented workouts, can interrupt spirals of negative and anxious thoughts, and releases feel-good endorphins. Exercise releases muscle tension and relieves stress.
The neurotransmitters and endorphins released while exercising don’t just help you destress and re-center yourself – they also improve cognitive functions like memory formation and retention. Studies suggest exercise can even spur the brain to produce new cells. So exercise might literally make you smarter.
An exercise regimen has been shown to combat depressive symptoms. Any form or intensity of exercise demonstrates these protective features. One study on exercise and major depressive disorder found that 15 minutes of running or 60 minutes of walking daily reduces symptoms by over 25% and reduces risk of relapse.
Since exercise increases the amount of oxygen that goes to your brain, cortisol is lowered and serotonin is increased, leading to boosts in mood.
Paying active attention to form, pace, heart rate, breathing, or any other fundamental aspect of your workouts can help symptoms of PTSD, CPTSD and sub-threshold PTSD. PTSD puts people into a constant freeze response; physical exertion and active attention can help restart the body’s reaction processes. It also fights the cardiovascular issues that sometimes accompany trauma disorders.
How we feel about ourselves affects everything – from social life and work performance to confidence and mood. In the same way that those feel-good chemicals lessen stress, anxiety and depression, they allow you the room to think more positively. Also, investing time in yourself is a self-care behavior, and the physical and visual differences you’ll see as you train boost your self-view.
When you’re stressed, you’re tense, both physically and mentally. Vigorous exercise tires muscles and calms the mind, reducing tension, feelings of panic and cramping from knotted muscles.
Understanding the Mind-Body Connection
Ever heard of a psychosomatic illness? You have physical symptoms of sickness because you believe that you’re sick. Well, it works the same the opposite way, too – the better you treat your body physically, the better your mind.
Whole-body health is about your socioemotional well-being as well as your physical health. Exercise is a great place to start a self-care routine, and other holistic methods of healing, like massage therapy, counseling and dietary changes, can boost the already awesome effects of exercise. Take it far enough and eventually you’ll feel like a whole new happy, healthy person!