This blog post has been a long one in the making… There are so many health benefits to exercise and I sometimes feel we are still only scratching the surface on knowledge about exercise and physical activity. I, personally, find it an incredibly important and an amazing part of my well-being. This is the reason why I wanted to break down for you why exercise is important.
What do I mean when I say “Exercise”?
First off, let us clarify: What do I mean when I write “Exercise”. The Cambridge dictionary defines exercise as “an action or actions to improve something or to make something happen”. This is obviously a general definition, but we can very much apply this to physical activity as well. Note: I will be using exercise and physical activity unanimously through this blog post. I am well aware that there are some people who are unable to exercise due to physical or mental challenges. If you are capable of movement though, this one is for you 💕.
How much exercise is recommended?
This is a tricky one and also somewhat personal to yourself. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends, for adults, a mixture of cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening activities. This can, for example, be walking, jogging or running (cycling or swimming are also great options) for about 150 minutes a week (so ca. 30 minutes on five times a week) mixed with 2 strength training (e.g. lifting weights, working with resistance bands, yoga) sessions in there.
The general consensus appears to be that some exercise is better than nothing. Less sitting also appears to be helpful. Ok… now that we have got the “clinical” part out of the way… let us dive into the juicy details as to why exercise is important.
Why Exercise is Important
I touched on this in my intro, but exercise comes with a whole list of benefits in terms of its importance. Once you know what a positive impact it has on your life (and also experience the benefits day-to-day), it is hard to go back 😉.
Healthy bones, joints, and muscles allow us to move swiftly, freely, and without any pain or physical constraint in our day-to-day lives. This becomes especially important when we age. Our decline in bone density (and therefore the risk of osteoporosis and/or arthritis) is slowed down with regular exercise. This is especially true for strength training sessions. Keeping physically active also appears to prevent bone or joint injuries better and therefore reduce our risk of falling/injury.
Exercise is great for your cognition. You may be experiencing feeling more awake and “sharper”. This can translate to better concentration and performance in a testing environment. It also benefits people who have been diagnosed with ADHD, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, and/or had a stroke.
In older adults, exercise may decrease the risk of developing cognitive diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. In general, cognitive decline is more evident as we age. Physical activity may continue to allow your processing speed, memory, and executive function to be at optimal levels.
Anxiety and Depression
Some of the most prevalent and ever-increasing mental health challenges of our current time. Exercise has been shown to have amazing benefits for our mental well-being. It is one of the main reasons why I enjoy it so much as well. Exercise reduces signs of anxiety, as well as depression. Research is going so far as to suggest that physically active children are less likely to develop depression when getting older (!!). You should feel the benefits of your anxiety alleviating shortly after you finish a training session. That is so-called short-term anxiety. When exercising regularly, long-term feelings of anxiety should also begin to subside. I have written an entire Anxiety series on this and other related topics as to how to avoid being in an anxiety-ridden state through diet and lifestyle changes.
Exercise helps with the quality of your sleep, and again, the benefits are almost immediate. The time spent to fall asleep becomes shorter. You also spend a higher percentage of time sleeping deeper. Your sleep efficiency improves, as well as the time your spend in a deep-sleeping state. You should also notice that you tend to be more alert during the day without the need to fall asleep. By the way – science indicates that it does not matter when you are performing physical activity during the day, the benefits for quality sleep are still the same. However, if you are performing intense and/or rigorous physical activity in the evenings or too close to bedtime you may be so “pumped” that you cannot sleep. Some people have absolutely no problem with that. I do, which is the reason why I tend to not exercise too close to bedtime (or if so, do something relaxing, such as stretching, for example). I have written an entire blog post about how to establish a good sleeping routine.
Reduce Health Risks
We cover this a lot on the blog – the risk of so-called “Western diseases”. These include heart attacks (or any heart-related conditions), stroke, and mainly Type-2 diabetes. Exercise helps with improving your cardiovascular strength, lowers blood pressure levels, may lower “bad” cholesterol levels, and can manage your blood sugar levels. Exercise also reduces stress levels, which oftentimes are a contributing factor to the conditions described above. If you are truly “at risk”, exercise alone may not bring down these health markers. You should always consult with your primary physician and follow their recommendation.
I am always careful when writing this because I am very much aware that cancer is a complicated, difficult, and a highly challenging beast (I cannot swear on the blog, but if I could, I would use a different word…). But the evidence in relation to this astounded me as well. There is research that suggests that physically active adults have a lower risk of developing common cancers, such as bladder, breast, colon, kidney, lung, and stomach by about 10 – 20%. There is also some evidence that suggests that if you are a cancer survivor (bless you!! 💚) your risk of mortality may be lowered by potentially 40 – 50%.
I want to stress that this field of research is still young and developing. I also want to point out that there are some limitations to the research. A lot of it is currently done based on a systemic review with people answering questionnaires. Obviously, in a self-assessed environment, each person may indicate their physical activity level and state differently. But the suggestion – coupled with the other pointed out health benefits – cannot be denied. I am linking the article here for you if you would like to have a read.
Exercise is awesome for our digestion! When we are sitting too long or having a sedentary lifestyle (coupled with a potentially not-good-for-you diet) we can easily feel constipated, bloated, or like we need to pass wind. When we exercise, we simulate our digestive tract. Physical activity brings more oxygen to our muscles and keeps the ones in our digestive tract moving along nicely. That way, food can pass through our gut at an optimal rate, absorbing the nutrients it needs and eliminating the rest.
I touched above on the fact that exercise can reduce levels of stress. This may be beneficial for people who experience irritable bowel syndrome. There is also less risk of gallstones forming. Interestingly, new research suggests that physical activity enhances our gut microbiome by inhabiting more diverse microbes in our gut. It also has a direct link to our immune system, as 80% of our immune system resides in our gut.
Other Reasons to be Physically Active and Exercise
Let me start with a word on “weight management”. When you google the benefits of exercise, there are a lot that state “weight management” and weight reduction as their number one. I am by no means denying that exercise may be helpful with that (if that is what you are looking for). I wanted to point out two important things though. (1) In my Debunking Myths: Metabolism blog post, I touch in detail on why exercising simply to be able to consume more calories does not work. (2) 80 – 85% are all about nutrition when “managing weight” and only about 15% can be influenced by physical activity. In other words: You cannot exercise away a bad diet. This is why I am careful to write about this at all. We are all unique and different and there is so much amazing evidence as to why exercise is good for us. It should not (and I do not want to) reduce it to body image 💕.
Physical activity promotes a range of health benefits. I hope this post has given you a more in-depth view into the “why”. Never forget that it allows you to enjoy time outdoors, with friends and family exploring new places or learning a new sport more easily. You also have more energy throughout your day to do the things you love. That alone should be an awesome amount of reasons that – hopefully – provides you with a higher quality of life.