Unexpected Health Benefits of Regular Exercise

2 people riding bikes

Our society is at once fitness-crazed and extremely sedentary. It’s not great. Instagram is reflecting images of abs and 8% body fat while reality is reflecting 6 hours of Netflix per day. Statistics show that 30% of adults are overweight, %42 are obese, and nearly 10% are super-obese. And it’s well-documented that obesity contributes to heart problems, diabetes, liver and kidney disease, and overall a shorter lifespan.

Enter: exercise. People can diet their life away to get the pounds off, but diet without exercise offers limited benefits, especially to people who’ve been very sedentary and might have weak or atrophied muscles. Dieting helps you lose, and exercising helps you gain. Here are 8 health benefits of exercise you might not know about:

1. Better Mood

Exercising releases dopamine into your system, which is closely associated with depression. While the exact reasons exercise fights depression aren’t well-understood, the clinical data on the issue is sure of one thing: a consistent exercise routine is a viable and effective intervention for clinical depression. These findings are independent of improved fitness, and indicate that frequency, not intensity, is the most important factor in exercise’s effect on mood.

2. Improved Sleep

The more activity you do during the day, the more your body will need to take advantage of the time you have to sleep; exercise actually helps you fall asleep faster and improves your sleep quality. Clinical studies consistently confirm exercise’s positive effects on sleep, but current data also indicates exercise may serve as an effective tool for treating disordered sleep as well.

3. Better Skin

Dermatologists agree that exercise improves the look and health of your skin. Exercise increases blood flow throughout the body, flooding your skin with nutrients and oxygen. This makes your skin more able to keep its barrier, which not only helps retain moisture but also protects your skin from environmental free-radicals.

4. Slower Ageing

After the age of 30, your body’s VO2 Max – a litmus of cardiovascular health – declines about 1% each year. Regular exercise fights this decline. A meta-analyses on studies exploring exercise’s effects on natural physical decline found that a regimen of reaching 60% of your max heart rate at least every other day can maintain and even improve cardiovascular capacity, slowing biological age.

5. Better Brain Function

Exercise helps our brain create chemicals that (a) make us feel good, and (b) help our brain create new connections. These functions protect against age-related cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s. The literature supports a regular workout routine, especially between the ages of 25-45, as being protective against brain degeneration.

6. Sharper Memory

The hippocampus is the learning and memory center of the brain, and part of the cognitive support a regular exercise routine offers is improved learning and memory. Studies show that exercise increases activity in the hippocampus, as well as levels of BDNF – a chemical that regulates and encourages neurogenesis.

7. Reduced Anxiety

The feel-good chemicals exercise releases fight depression, but they also fight anxiety. Clinical studies show exercise lowers reactivity of the HPA – an important part of the brain associated with adaptive responses. Exercise also causes your body to release what are called endogenous opioids; chemicals that make you feel positive, energetic and relaxed. Similarly, vigorous activity releases endogenous endocannabinoids, mimicking the functions of cannabis for anxiety.

8. Longer Life

Overall, consistent exercise actually lengthens your lifespan, and reduces causes of mortality by 30%. First, cardiovascular fitness predicts longevity – that’s established. So, too, does aerobic capacity. This is simply a byproduct of the fact that being fit reduces risk of disease across the spectrum. The famous Harvard Alumni Study of 1978 found some pretty amazing things about fitness and lifespan, the principles of which have been consistently confirmed by later studies.

Active people are:

  • 39% less likely to suffer a heart attack
  • 46% less likely to suffer from heart disease and stroke
  • 47% less likely to develop disease
  • 24% lower death rate

In addition, people who started exercising after the age of 45 had a 24% reduction in mortality. Calculations based off this study’s results indicates that for every one hour of exercise, you gain two hours of life.

Adopting to a New Exercise Routine

Don’t worry – if you’ve never been into exercising before, that in no way means you’ve missed out on all the great body and mind benefits that come with a 3-workouts-per-week routine. Everything from clinical studies to TikTok has shown us you can get strong at any age, and more, that it’s worth it. If you find the idea of taking up an exercise routine daunting, start with simple, short workouts, and focus on these things:

1. Be consistent.

Did you tell yourself you’d run today but just aren’t feeling it? Don’t skip it altogether – take the dog on a walk at your normal workout time. Not every day has to be full out; you’re trying to create lifelong habits, not race to an end point.

2. Do stuff you like.

Hate running? Or don’t like lifting weights? Try other things! Biking is good cardio – so is roller blading or hiking. And you can do strength training any kind of way, too. Yard work need done? What about a bit of kayaking? If you like what you’re doing for exercise – or at least find it useful – you’re more likely to stay consistent about being active.

3. Be loud about it.

Tell your family and friends you’re starting a fitness journey. Ask for support and maybe some accountability. When you do hang with friends, incorporate more physical activity. Involving people you love supports your exercise goals in 3 ways: (1) peer pressure works, (2) you have people to work out with, and (3) you have a social group who wants you to succeed.

4. Be nice to yourself.

It’s easy to be your biggest critic when you’re starting to work out and don’t feel like we’re doing well or doing enough. Getting in shape is a lot – you’re not going to be great at everything all at once, and you’re not going to see big changes. It’s long-term, and consistent, little changes start to add up pretty quickly when you stick with it. Let yourself fail. Give yourself a rest day when your body tells you to. Don’t overdo things just because you feel like you should.

Exercising doesn’t have to be intimidating or awful; you’ve just got to get into a little research and focus on all the amazing things breaking a sweat a few times a week can do for your mind and body.

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