Exercise Benefits, Part 1: Why You Should Aim to Be Active
With how much the fitness industry has grown in recent years, you’re probably well aware of the fact that exercise has many health benefits. But why? How? What specifically does it do to our bodies and brains that makes it good for us? And what about the different types of exercise? Are they all equally beneficial? Is one better than another? What types should we focus on as part of our online fitness training programs?
To answer these questions (and hopefully more), I’m writing a six-part series on the benefits of exercise. This article, Part 1, will discuss the benefits that are general to all types of exercise—well, activity, more generally. Parts 2, 3, 4, and 5 will focus on the benefits that are mostly unique to cardio, strength, intervals (HIIT), and yoga/barre/pilates, respectively. The final part will discuss stretching, which, while perhaps not technically “exercise,” is important and should be included in your exercise regimen.
Let’s begin with the benefits of exercise and an active lifestyle.
Benefits of Exercise
At the end of the day, activity is activity, so whether it’s going for a walk, taking an dance class, lifting weights at the gym, doing an outdoor yoga class, working out with an online trainer, or gardening, anything is better than sitting down all day. So just move.
Activity keeps our bodies moving, which helps keep them from getting stiff and inflamed, and it keeps our bodily systems in better working order. It also engages our brain, improving our mood and cognition. Let’s take a closer look at some of these benefits.
Sitting is actually pro-inflammatory, meaning that when you spend too many hours a day sitting, you increase the amount of inflammatory molecules in your body. This can lead to a whole host of complications. (Inflammation is associated with pretty much every disease/syndrome known to man: cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s, and more.)
Because of this, some have tried to claim that sedentariness is as bad for you as smoking, which is a bit of an exaggeration. Nonetheless, the point stands: extended sitting is not good for you. Conversely, activity, by keeping you from sitting, is anti-inflammatory. So any activity you can do that stops you from sitting for long periods of time will be good for your health, even if it’s just getting up every hour or so to walk for a couple of minutes or doing a quick, 30-minute virtual workout.
My personal experience attests to this all too well. My left knee is a little…well, let’s just say it’s unhappy. It’s not bad enough to cause me to have it checked out, and most days I hardly notice a problem, but it gets a little stiff and achy sometimes. And it can tell when the weather’s changing. Without having had it officially looked at, I’m fairly confident that it’s some sort of inflammation. Contrary to what I would have guessed, it actually feels better on days when I’m more active. It’s when I’ve been sitting for too long at a time that it gets stiff. The activity, it would seem, reduces the inflammation.
Stress is a killer—literally. Stress wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds. One of the things it does is lead to chronic inflammation, which, as mentioned above, is a risk factor for pretty much everything you don’t want to get. Thankfully, exercise helps reduce stress.
Exercise can be powerfully therapeutic, helping us release our pent-up stress and aggression and taking our minds off what’s stressing us. It trains our bodies to respond to stress better. That’s because exercise is a stressor itself. In this way, it works like a vaccine. Just like vaccines provide safe, controlled exposure to an infectious agent to protect us against future, potentially unsafe exposures to that infectious agent, healthy, controlled exposure to stress (e.g., a workout) helps our bodies respond better to future unhealthy, uncontrollable stressors.
The research here has been somewhat lacking in terms of long-term, randomized control studies (the gold standard for scientific research), since exercise immunology is still a relatively new field; nonetheless, there is still plenty of evidence showing that exercise enhances the effectiveness of our immune system.
But there’s a catch: too much high-intensity activity can impair your immunity. This is because, as mentioned above, exercise is stress. Too much stress, without enough time for recovery, will weaken the immune system. So keep the high-intensity workouts to maybe two or three days a week, tops, and you should be good. If you need help planning a healthy, effective weekly workout schedule, contact one of our online personal trainers.
Better Cardiovascular Health
While some forms of exercise produce better cardiovascular fitness in terms of metrics and performance, any exercise can promote cardiovascular health to some degree, at least in terms of lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality.
This is probably owing to several factors: activity reduces inflammation, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease; exercise helps control body composition and blood sugar, which are also risk factors; and activity puts a healthy stress on the cardiovascular system, thereby strengthening it.
Lower Disease Risk
Along with reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, physical activity is also associated with reduced risk of other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Again, this is in part owing to reduced inflammation and to improvements in other risk factors (e.g., healthier body composition, better glucose regulation, etc.).
With diabetes, the effect is also more direct: aerobic cardio, anerobic intervals, and resistance training have all been shown to increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin, which is what we want, as insulin resistance is a key risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.
Improved Neuromuscular Coordination
Use it or lose it. That principle, often said in reference to muscles, also applies to our nervous system and to the connection between the nerves and muscles. The more we engage in certain movements, the more we strengthen the nerve pathways and neuromuscular connections involved in those movements. This improved neuromuscular coordination can lead to improved motor control and coordination.
Have you ever experienced a runner’s high? Have you felt better after a workout than before? That’s because exercise affects the levels of neurotransmitters in our brains, including the ones involved in mood. It makes us neurochemically happier.
Also, don’t you just feel so accomplished and satisfied when you’re done with your workout? That’s a great mood boost right there. Plus, finishing one behavior that’s good for your health increases the likelihood of engaging in other healthy behaviors. (I know that’s true for me; I like to keep the healthy momentum going.) This will prolong that sense of satisfaction, which will lead to more healthy choices, which will lead to…I think you get it.
Lastly, there’s the mood boost that can come from improved self-esteem and self-efficacy. It’s a proud, exciting moment when you accomplish a new personal best. It feels good to look back on your journey and see what you can do now compared to what you could do six months/a year/three years ago.
When your body feels good because you’re taking care of it, your mind will feel good. And it’s nice to look in the mirror and be proud of what you see. All these “side effects” of exercise can do wonders for emotional well-being.
Enhanced Cognitive Function
Lastly, exercise benefits our brains. Some forms (i.e., cardio) are arguably better than others for our brain, but they can all help. In part, this is because body and mind are interconnected: the health of one affects the health of the other. So when your body is healthier, so is your mind (and vice-versa). Another piece is that exercise also engages our minds.
Sometimes we have to pay attention to the exercise we’re doing (e.g., getting the pose right, following the choreography, heeding our trainer's advice about form, etc.). But even when the exercise itself doesn’t require much conscious attention on our part (e.g., walking), our brain is still unconsciously working to direct all the necessary muscles in what to do. This is why any and all forms of activity can help improve attention and executive functioning.
There’s plenty more to say about why exercise is good for us, and I’ll say a lot of that over the next several articles as I focus on the benefits that are more unique to different forms of exercise. But hopefully this is enough to show you some specific benefits of why activity—no matter what it looks like—is good for your health, body and mind.
If you’re ready be more active and start your fitness journey, connect with one of our virtual personal trainers on ZentasticFit today. You'll get personalized, one-on-one virtual training sessions that will help you get fit and reach your goals on your time and your terms.
“Benefits of Exercise” (MedlinePlus)
“Health Benefits of Physical Activity: The Evidence” by Darren E. R. Warburton, Crystal Whitney Nicol, and Shannon S. D. Bredin (Canadian Medical Association Journal)
“The Health Benefits of Physical Activity and Cardiorespiratory Fitness” by McKinney et al. (British Columbia Medical Journal)
About the author
Dustin R. Meriwether, Ph.D., has a doctorate in cognitive psychology from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities and is a certified group fitness instructor through AFAA