Updated: May 3
If you decide to implement an exercise regime as part of a move towards a healthier lifestyle, you stand a statistically greater chance of pocketing the following benefits:
o Weight control
o Improved body composition
o Protection against coronary heart disease (CHD)
o Improved cardio-respiratory performance
o Protection against stroke
o Improved immune function
o Decreased depression
o Reduced anxiety
o Stress reduction
o Promotes a positive attitude
o Enforces self-efficacy
o Improves self-confidence and self-body image
Wow! What a singularly impressive list of health and fitness benefits. Makes me want to slip on a pair of sneeks and go out for a five-mile run followed by a set of 500 kettlebell swings. To think, each mile, each set of ten swings could be boosting my immune system and protecting me against heart disease!
But that list is just the tip of the iceberg of health and fitness benefits regular exercise confers. In this article we will delve deeper into 10 of the associative health and fitness benefits of exercise. Each overview includes, where applicable, supporting links to contemporary research while also briefly outlining alternative lifestyle interventions.
The article concludes with an exercise action plan which aims to provide you with a range of implementable methods of including more exercise into your life.
The benefits of focus include:
1: Decrease risk of obesity
Obesity is now considered a global epidemic. Worldwide more than 1.6 billion people are believed to be either overweight, obese or morbidly obese. By 2030, if current trends continue, it is predicted that over a quarter of all people alive will be obese. Each year over 4 million people will die as result of being overweight.
Overweight and obesity are defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. A body mass index (BMI) over 25 is considered overweight, and over 30 is obese.
To account for this phenomenon many interesting theories have been put forward – theories that range from mass misbehaving microbiota to hormonal imbalances caused by chemical pesticides and airborne pollution. And while it would be unwise to dismiss these theories off-hand, as it is yet unclear what role they play in the prevalence of obesity, the one that maintains the most credibility is by far the simplest to comprehend.
Today more people live a sedentary lifestyle than at another time across all human history. According to a leading research article, compared to just the previous generation, ‘we are spending increasing amounts of time in environments that not only limit physical activity but require prolonged sitting,’ (Sparling et al. 2010).
Habitual sedentary behaviour, that is, lounging in front of the TV or using automation instead of walking or cycling, has been shown to be a significant ‘risk factor for cardiometabolic disease and all-cause mortality.’
By being more active, by taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking or cycling instead of gas guzzling, by introducing a daily exercise routine into our lives we can work to keep our weight within a healthy range thus significantly reducing our risk of succumbing to the many diseases associated with obesity.
2: Decrease risk of developing cancer
Yes, the evidence is mounting by the minute: exercise could decrease your risk of developing many types of cancer. A review of the literature identified ‘consistent evidence that regular physical activity reduced risk for colon cancer by about 24% and ‘may reduce risk of lung cancer by about 20%.’
In 2009 an Australian research team published a paper showing the positive effects exercise exerts in the fight against cancer. The research demonstrated that exercise, in conjunction with established treatment methods, can positively support cancer patients irrespective of what stage they are at in their treatment.
Since the publication of that seminal 2009 paper the benefits accrued through supplementing exercise during cancer treatment have been extensively reviewed. A recent publication reported that of 140 such studies 75% showed ‘statistically significant and clinically relevant benefit through exercise on a range of treatment-related side effects, physical, functional, and psychosocial outcomes’ (Maloney, et al. 2018).
The single most successful outcome of the Australian research team’s paper, besides stimulating wider scientific interest, was to inspire the medical profession to prescribe exercise to cancer sufferers as a supplementary method of treatment.
This amazing health benefit of exercise led one medical professional to proclaim that:
"If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented."
3: Decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a dangerous and potentially life threatening diseased caused by poor lifestyle habits. It is classed as a ‘metabolic disorder’ that is triggered when the body becomes ‘ineffective at using the insulin it has produced.’
‘The body of research by Professor Roy Taylor now confirms his Twin Cycle Hypothesis - that Type 2 diabetes is caused by excess fat actually within both liver and pancreas.’
Type 2 diabetes is very prevalent amongst Western populations impacting on the lives of over 34 million Americans and 3.8 million Britons. According to Diabetes UK the number of people diagnosed with the disease has more than doubled in 20 years. The cost diabetes places on health services is tremendous: Americans spend 130-billion and Britons 12-billion annually medicating and treating the disease.
‘According to The International Diabetes Federation (IDF), more than 371 million people across the globe have diabetes and this figure is predicted to rise to over 550 million by 2030.’
However, it is well understood that dietary reform and regular exercise can help decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. According to the NHS, regular exercise can ‘reduce your risk of major illnesses such as . . . type 2 diabetes . . . by up to 50% and lower your risk of early death by up to 30%.’
Furthermore, there is promising research showing that exercise can help stop the exacerbation of the disease and, when coupled with healthy lifestyle interventions, even reverse the harmful and potentially debilitating effects type 2 diabetes exerts.
For example, a 2011 study cited by Sciencedaily, a website dedicated to sharing and disseminating contemporary research, confirmed that people with type 2 diabetes could decrease and reverse ‘abnormal factors’ associated with the disease. This was achieved through the implementation of healthy lifestyle factors: diet, exercise, fasting and generally being more active.
And what’s more, the body responds remarkably quickly when it is treated properly. After just 7 days researchers documented a ‘profound fall in liver fat content’ which was the result of the normalising of insulin sensitivity. Over 8 weeks in ‘the raised pancreas fat content fell and normal first phase insulin secretion became re-established’.
4: Decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD)
Cardiovascular disease, or CVD for brevity, is an overarching name for a multitude of medical disorders of the heart and blood vessels. But also, CVD encompasses other common disorders such as high blood pressure (hypertension), coronary heart disease (myocardial infarction) and cerebrovascular disease (stroke)..
CVD is truly disastrous and it negatively impacts on the lives of millions of people worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation, ‘cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the number 1 cause of death globally, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year.’ Such is the extent of this killer that 31% of all deaths globally are estimated to be caused by or linked in some way to CVD.
In Briton alone 7.6 million people (that’s over 10% of the population!) live with CVD and 450 lives are lost every day from heart or circulatory diseases (British Heart Foundation).
But let’s turn our focus to what CVD is and, more importantly, how to reduce susceptibility.
The NHS describes the condition thus: CVD is ‘associated with a build-up of fatty deposits inside the arteries (atherosclerosis) and an increased risk of blood clots.’ The disease is also associated with damage to arteries – that is the arteries become brittle, fur with fat, or inflamed – in organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys and eyes.
But what causes CVD? Typically the blame is laid at the feet of ‘poor lifestyle choices’. But this accusation is hopelessly ambiguous. Also, to make matters more confusing, few if any of the leading health advisory groups are willing to state explicitly what causes or contributes to CVD. Thus we are left scratching our heads.
However, it is generally recognised that lifestyle choices such as poor diet, smoking, alcohol consumption and sedentarism are all ‘major contributing factors’ of CVD.
One of the most effective ways of improving cardiovascular health is to take part in regular continuous exercise – such as running, swimming, rowing and/or cycling. Actually, the NHS prescribes 150-minutes of moderate intensity activity as an intervention to reduce CVD susceptibility.
However, it must be recognised that exercise is NOT a panacea to other poor lifestyle habits. For example, it is an act of folly to think that ‘Because I exercise, I can eat what I want’. The beneficial effects exercise exerts on health are compounded when coupled with other positive lifestyle factors: such as implementing the principals of a plant-based diet and the dogmatic abstention of alcohol and cigarette consumption.
5: Decreased depression
One in four people at some point in their life will suffer from depression. It’s been estimated that currently 264 million people are currently suffering from this debilitating condition (WHO, 2020). The misconception is that depression is a mild disorder brought on by rainy days or a soppy film. In reality depression can be hugely debilitating, the symptoms of which range from loss of motivation, to low self-worth and even to suicide ideation. Anyone who has suffered depression can attest to the inescapable agony it induces.
How might depression be treated? How might the symptoms be mitigated? Unsurprisingly there are many methods available. Only recently one method has been called into question and has subsequently sparked controversy. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) involves ‘passing electric current through the patient’s brain to cause seizures or fits,’ (Easton, 2020 – BBC News). Dr John Reed, of the University of East London, has spoken out against this procedure damning it as dangerous, irresponsible and unbecoming of modern medical practice.
Of course, there are other, less intrusive methods of treatment available, methods that don’t put the patient at risk of ‘brain damage’ (Easton 2020).
Exercise has been shown to offer a measure of relief. ‘In the areas of depression, people who exercise regularly are generally less depressed than sedentary people,’ (Curtis 2000). The way exercise achieves this is twofold. Firstly by ‘stimulating the production of brain chemicals call endorphins’ exercise lifts mood and promotes a sense of wellbeing. Secondly, because it requires high focus exercise turns attention outward – away from the constant negative and harmful introspection that characterise depression, (Griffen and Tyrell 2003 – p165).
6: Improved cardiovascular function
Cardiovascular, or ‘continuous’, exercise – such as running, rowing, swimming and cycling – are excellent at strengthening the heart muscle and generally improving circulatory (and respiratory) function.
One of the best exercises for developing and improving cardiovascular fitness is cycling. Perhaps this accounts for why the single most important attribute of a grand tour cyclist is the relative performance of their cardiovascular system – that is, how much blood their heart pumps out with each successive beat (stroke volume) and the efficiency of their vascular system (delivering oxygenated blood to the working muscles and deoxygenated blood back to the heart).
Hence why, in cycling parlance, an athlete who can turn-over a consistent cadence for hours on end is said to have a ‘good engine’.
The reason why cycling (running, rowing and swimming) is so good at developing cardiovascular performance is because the exercise is powered by the largest muscle group of the body. To turn those pedals the gluteus maximums (the largest skeletal muscle) and minimums, the quadriceps, hamstrings and gastrocnemius (calves) – and whole host of other muscles too insignificant to name – are ‘recruited’.
That army of muscle is fuelled ceaselessly by the strongest muscle of them all: the heart. During a cycle the heart beats harder and faster so that working muscles are kept stoked with a continuous supply of oxygen rich blood. It is this additional physical demand that promotes the growth of new muscle tissue thus strengthening the cardiac wall and the smooth muscles that line the vascular system.
Research has shown that people with a strong heart and low resting heart rate, which is synonymous with high cardiovascular function, statistically suffer fewer incidences of stroke and are less likely to develop coronary heart disease. According to the NHS, ‘high blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the most important risk factors for CVD’ (cardiovascular disease). And one of the best-known methods of mitigating hypertension is exercise.
7: Decreased risk of developing osteoporosis later in life
Osteoporosis is called a ‘silent’ disease because, unlike, say, type 2 diabetes or obesity, it is non-symptomatic. That is, if you have osteoporosis you probably won’t be aware of the disease until you suffer a fracture or broken bone.
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease describe osteoporosis as a progressive condition where the ‘mineral density’ of bones diminishes over time. This results in the ‘quality and structure of bone changes’ which inevitably leads to ‘decrease in bone strength that can increase the risk of fractures.’
Osteoporosis is a shockingly prevalent disease that negatively affects the lives of more 75 million people just in America, Europe and Japan. It causes more than 8.9 million fractures worldwide and though often regarded as a disease of minor concern, one that is manageable and isn’t life-threatening, ‘osteoporosis is not only a major cause of fractures, it also ranks high among diseases that cause people to become bedridden with serious complications’ (WHO).
However, though perhaps just an unpleasant pest for middle age groups, this disease ‘may be life-threatening in elder people’ while contributing to ‘2.8 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs)’ annually across the globe. DALYs account for the collective years across a population group that people suffer from a physical impairment due to disease or injury; ‘osteoporotic fractures account for approximately 1% of the DALYs attributed to noncommunicable diseases.’
Osteoporosis is more prevalent in postmenopausal woman and in older men. This a consequence of the deficiency of the production of estrogen, a sex hormone involved in the process of bone repair. But, it must be borne in mind that, there are things we can do to improve bone strength and thus reduce osteoporosis susceptibility.
According to The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease, the steps we can take to ‘prevent the disease and fractures’ include:
Participating in regular physically activity including impact exercises such as running and weight-bearing exercises such resistance training
Reducing (or better still removing) alcohol consumption
Quitting smoking, or not starting if you don’t smoke
Eating a nutritious plant-based diet rich in calcium and vitamin D to help maintain good bone health.
8: Protection against stroke
Most people understand how serious a stroke can be but few understand how they are caused. Otherwise known as acquired brain injury (ABI), strokes are the result of the disruption of blood supply to the brain cutting off oxygen to cells. If cells are starved of oxygen, even for just a few seconds, they die – in their millions and billions. The death of cells in the brain results in damage to localised areas. This in turn can lead to loss of neurological functions and memory impairment (Haslem et al 2018).
Simply put, strokes are devastating; they can impede motor function, rob people of cognisance and, at their most severe, kill.
However, researchers have produced a substantial body of evidence demonstrating ‘that regular physical exercise affords protection against stroke,’ (Curtis 2000). By improving the ratio of high-density lipoproteins to low-density lipoproteins (commonly referred to as good and bad fats respectively) exercise reduces the quantity of bad fat in the blood. It is this bad fat that can clog up capillaries starving the brain and cells of oxygen.
By following this simple logic, if we engage in regular exercise we will, in turn, decrease bad fat and with it our susceptibility to suffering from stroke.
9: Reduces stress and improves mood
The link between exercise and improved mental wellbeing, including the reduction in perceived stress and the improvement of mood, is adamantine. Statistically speaking, people who engage in regular exercise suffer less stress, enjoy reduced incidences of depression and anxiety.
Furthermore, for those people who simply cannot avoid stress triggers, perhaps because their job is overly bureaucratized, or their personal life is chaotic, exercise can become the go-to strategy for mitigating or busting stress. Granted, it is always preferable to weed out stressors at their root, but oftentimes this is not possible. When such stubborn stressful situations send cortisol levels through the roof, there’s nothing like a high-intense circuit or long run to bring about a sense of calm.
Exercise could in fact offer more mental health positives beyond those banded about in the public domain – that is, reduction in stress, anxiety and/or depression. Because exercise requires a high degree of mental focus and concentration it can induce the coveted ‘flow’ state which has become synonymous with happiness and wellbeing.
Flow, popularised by positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a hyper focused state where we become immersed in the activity. Of this state Csikszentmihalyi said 'There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback.'
Those fortunate to have experienced flow can attest to the timeless sense of focus it induces. But also the lasting reverberations of connection, fulfilment and purpose that continue to resonate within once we emerge from flow.
In addition, those exercises that take place in the ‘great outdoors’, such as running and cycling, can help further reduce stress and bring about a sense of wellbeing. This is one of the most common reported benefits amongst cyclists. And though the reports are mostly anecdotal, anyone who has ever had the pleasure of cycling through the countryside on a sunny day will readily support the calming effects it induces.
10: Exercise improves immune function and may increase longevity
I suppose it’s a bit of no-brainer really. If exercise decreases your susceptibility to developing type 2 diabetes and cancer, while reducing stroke and cardiovascular disease risk (which together contribute to a shocking 30-million premature deaths each year), then it stands to good reason that, statistically speaking, exercise may increase your life span.
But exercise helps to extend your expiration date in another way. Regular physical activity, including sport (especially those sports that take part within a social setting), has been shown to boost immune function. This is eminently a good thing. Studies have shown that people with a fully functioning immune system suffer fewer illnesses and diseases.
In addition, a good immune system can protect against foreign bodies, invading microbes, while also performing the important role of removing dead cells. But what is the immune system? Simply stated, the immune system is a vast heterogeneous network of cells – such as macrophages and phagocytes – organs, proteins and tissues that together work to protect the body from external and internal microbial threats.
An immune system that is said to be ‘functioning’ and ‘doing its job’ is one where all the constituent parts listed above are working in harmony. But also, good immunity can be evidenced when the relative volume of white blood cells is high. White blood cells perform a vital function; they are often likened to a marauding army of highly specialised soldiers whose job it is to seek out pathogens. When they discover a pathogen or foreign body ‘they begin to multiply and send signals out to other cell types to do the same.’
This then triggers a complex, coordinated and sustained multi-cellular attack which typically results in the ‘enemy’ (read invading pathogen) being destroyed – or at least being hastily escorted off the premises.
It stands to reason then, if the immune system is plays an instrumental and integral part in maintaining our continued survival, we ought to be doing everything we can to keep it in tact. According to the Harvard Medical School there are a number of ways to improve immune function; they include:
Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables
Maintain a healthy weight
If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation
Get adequate sleep
Take steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and maintaining healthy hygiene practices
Try to minimize stress
And, you guessed it, EXERCISE regularly!
I’m loath to conclude this article on the sour note of a caveat, but I would be trading in misinformation and deception if I did not make two things explicitly clear.
The first thing: of all the benefits mentioned exercise only statistically decreases susceptibility – it is NOT preventative. It pains me to say this but, unfortunately, irrespective of how healthily we live, there is no absolute guarantee that we will not succumb to some species of epidemiological misfortune.
The second thing: exercise is NOT a panacea of all disease. Contrary to popular opinion exercise does not eliminate the detrimental effects that a toxic diet and poor lifestyle habits have on health. To better reap the rewards of exercise you must include it as part of the healthy lifestyle whole.
Exercise action plan
Ok, you’ve read all about how keep fit keeps us healthy while also dramatically reducing the risk of developing many diseases, the question I’m sure you’re now asking is: how do I get more exercise in my life?
Because that question can be answered in numerous ways I’ve compiled a list of methods you could use to get more exercise in your life.
Designate at a minimum three days a week on which you can set aside 30 minutes to an hour for exercises (see example below). Once you’ve settled on the days decide at what time exercise is to take place. Now, if you’ve never exercises before, I would advise against rigorous exercise. Start with just a walk, or an easy cycle, swim or light session at the gym. Stick to this low intensity regime for a minimum of two weeks and then, when you feel ready, raise the intensity.
Partner up with a buddy and get active together. Better still, if you’ve got a friend/family member who is already active, ask them to show you the ropes or take you under their wing.
Why not download one of our excellent exercise programmes? Each programme provides you with all the tools, teaching and training needed to take charge of your fitness and become you own personal trainer.
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