The benefits of exercise for your physical and mental health

Exercise has many benefits, both curative and preventive, for physical and mental health. Any amount of exercise, even if it falls below the suggested amount, is likely to produce benefits.

Exercise benefits both mental health and physical health. Indeed, the National Institute on Aging say studies show that “taking it easy” is risky.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that “Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health,” and everyone can benefit.

Back in 1953, a pioneering epidemiological study in The Lancet showed that rates of coronary heart disease were lower among physically active London bus conductors than among less active bus drivers.

According to a recent review, since that early report, researchers have linked physical inactivity with more than 40 chronic conditions.

This article looks at some specific benefits of regular exercise for mental and physical health.

Regular exercise is good for heart health. Possible benefits include:

Reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease is an important benefit of exercise.

A person can begin experiencing the benefits of regular exercise right away, though the CDC recommend that adults perform 150 minutes a week of at least moderate intensity activity.

The benefits continue to increase as people are more active than this.

According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), different types of exercise can benefit people with, or at risk of, type 2 diabetes by:

  • improving control of blood glucose
  • reducing cardiovascular risk factors
  • helping with weight loss
  • helping with general well-being
  • delaying or preventing the development of type 2 diabetes

Exercise can also benefit people with type 1 diabetes by:

  • improving cardiovascular fitness
  • strengthening muscles
  • improving insulin sensitivity

The ADA say, “Physical activity and exercise should be recommended and prescribed to all individuals with diabetes as part of management of glycemic control and overall health.”

The National Cancer Institute say there is “strong evidence that higher levels of physical activity are linked to lower risk” of the following cancers:

  • colon
  • stomach
  • esophageal
  • breast
  • bladder
  • uterine (endometrial)
  • kidney

For example, a 2016 analysis of 26 breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer studies found a 37% reduction in cancer-specific mortality when comparing the most active patients with the least active.

There may also be a link between physical activity and reduced risk of other cancers, but the evidence is less clear.

Physical activity can help reduce anxiety, and this benefit can start right after a moderate or vigorous exercise session.

Longer term, regular exercise can also help reduce the risk of depression.

Regular exercise can help prevent the bone density loss that occurs with aging, say the CDC.

Moderate or vigorous muscle-strengthening and aerobic exercise, as well as bone-strengthening programs, can all help.

Real benefits to bone density begin with only about 90 minutes of exercise a week.

Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking and dancing, and resistance exercises are particularly good for bone health.

Weight-bearing exercise helps build strong muscles, which is particularly important for adults as they get older.

“Strong scientific evidence shows that physical activity delays death from all causes,” according to a 2018 report from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Even better, the benefits start to accumulate with modest amounts of moderate-to-vigorous exercise. The greatest jump occurs when a person goes from being “inactive” to being “insufficiently active.”

The CDC say there is good evidence that exercise can help maintain weight over time, although it may take more than the recommended amount to do so.

In general, losing weight and then keeping it off also require a healthful, balanced diet.

It is easy to overestimate the number of calories that exercise burns.

The CDC give some examples of the calories that a person weighing 154 pounds would burn during an hour of activity for:

  • hiking: 370 calories
  • light gardening: 330 calories
  • running or jogging at 5 miles per hour: 590 calories

In 2017, an overview of Cochrane Reviews, which look systematically at the evidence for particular interventions, examined whether exercise and physical activity help with chronic pain in adults.

The study concluded that a definitive answer would require more research.

The authors note that although the quality of evidence was generally low, “There is some evidence of improved physical function and a variable effect on both psychological function and quality of life.”

None of the interventions appeared to cause any harm. The authors of the overview noted limited evidence regarding improvement in pain severity.

According to the CDC, physical activity that includes more than one type, such as aerobic exercise, balance training, or muscle strengthening, can help decrease both the risk of falls and the risk of injury from falls in older adults.

Exercise helps people sleep, and some of the benefits can start immediately. Regular exercise can help by:

  • increasing the efficiency of sleep
  • improving sleep quality and deep sleep
  • reducing daytime drowsiness
  • reducing the need for sleep medication

Because exercise can improve bone health, it can treat or prevent osteoporosis.

Regular exercise also helps prevent falls and fractures related to muscle weakness and lack of balance, which is particularly important for people with osteoporosis.

Regular exercise can reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in adults.

In people over the age of 50 years, exercise also improves certain aspects of cognition, such as processing speed.

A 2016 study reviewed the evidence indicating that physical activity, cognitive activity (such as learning new skills), and eating a Mediterranean-style diet promote “brain health” in older adults.

The results suggested that these behaviors, perhaps in combination, may help keep the cognitive manifestations of aging and neurodegenerative disease at bay.

Regular exercise can reduce the risk of many serious diseases, improve mental health and mood, and extend lifespan. Exercise benefits everyone.

Some benefits arise with very small increases in physical activity for people who are currently inactive.

Even if a person is far from meeting the recommended weekly activity levels, those first small steps are important and worthwhile.

Janelle B. Smith

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