The positive long-term effects of exercise on health and wellbeing are well understood. Every day it seems new scientific papers are published showing how exercise reduces disease susceptibility or fortifies some facet of physicality.
And if scientific inquiry isn’t strengthening established links of the beneficial long-term effects of exercise, it’s uncovering new ones.
More or less everyone knows that one long-term effect of exercise is fat loss and improved body composition. When we are active the body consumes more calories thus diminishing the surplus stored as fat.
It’s for this reason why exercise is almost always the first intervention to which people run when they want to lose weight – or atone for overindulgence.
long-term effect of exercise #1: Improved brain health
But few people know that regular exercise has been shown to promote brain health. In addition to reducing risk of developing brain-wasting diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, exercise encourages the birth of new neurons.
A recent scientific publication showed that the neurochemical BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor), is typically more abundant in people who habitually exercise when compared with people who lead largely a sedentary life.
The significance of this finding cannot be overstated. BDNF, ‘a key molecule involved in plastic changes related to learning and memory’,¹ plays a pivotal role in the process known as neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is how the brain forms and then integrates new neurons.
It has been suggested that by promoting the secretion of BDNF, which in turn stimulates neurogenesis, exercise can help slow brain aging and with it delay cognitive decline.
A long-term effect of exercise is improved memory
The long-term effect of exercise on the brain does not stop at neurogenesis. All forms of physical activity, from cardio to callisthenics, and strength training to sport, can exert a positive effect on memory.
A study conducted at one university established a relationship with exercise and improved long-term memory recall. Researchers separated participants into two groups. One group was put on an exercise regime while the other group was required to remain inactive.
Prior to enforcing the two diametric regimes, participants were put through a barrage of memory recall tests. After several weeks the exercisers and non-exercisers again were subjected to tests of memory retention.
The outcome of the study substantiated the hypothesis that exercise supports memory function. Concluding the regimes, the exercisers scored significantly better on memory tests when compared to their sedentary counterparts.
long-term effect of exercise #2: Stronger heart
The heart is the strongest muscle in the body. It beats around 1,500 times every day and, if looked after, will continue to do so every second for the entirety of your life. Apparently, the average person gets about two billion beats out of their ticker before it packs up.
That, I think you’ll agree, is impressive; even more so when you remember that the heart doesn’t receive an annual MOT, oil change, or service.
However, you can tune your heart and, to carry the metaphor one final step further, increase its horsepower.
cardiac muscle can be strengthened with exercise
Because the heart is a muscle it can be trained and strengthened like any other muscle. For example, aerobic – or ‘cardio’ – exercise ‘stimulates the chambers of the heart to grow stronger, more capacious, and more elastic’ (Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health).²
These physiological adaptations confer numerous cardiovascular benefits. Regularly engaging in aerobic exercise has been shown to increase the heart’s stroke volume as well as vascular efficiency.
Furthermore, when we work the heart our red blood cell count goes up. In addition, ‘increased cardiac output stimulates the expansion of the many small arteries and capillaries’ (Exercised). This enables the heart to deliver more oxygen-rich blood to the working muscles.
It’s these many physiological adaptions that account for why people who participate in aerobic exercise suffer fewer incidences of coronary heart disease.
long-term effect of exercise #3: Improved body composition
Firstly, let’s start by understanding what body composition means. At its essence, body composition describes and quantifies the percentages of fat-free mass and fat mass (Science Direct – 2013).³
Body composition can quickly be measured using the NHS body mass index calculator (BMI). By inputting your height and weight into the BMI calculator, you will be placed in one of four categories: underweight; normal weight; overweight; obese.
The category provides a simplistic indication of your body composition. This information can be used to ‘normalise’ the ratio between fat-free and fat mass if applicable.
Remember, though, the BMI is a ‘generalised’ health measure and thus cannot account for body types that reside outside of the prespecified norm. For example, people who are trained, or heavily muscled, would likely receive a false reading from the BMI. The same can be said of adults who lose muscle as they get older and pregnant women.
What if I'm overweight or obese?
If you conduct a BMI and the results suggest that you are overweight or obese, this is an indication that lifestyle intervention is needed. The NHS states that ‘the best way to lose weight if you’re overweight is through a combination of diet and exercise’ (NHS – 2022).⁴
This same advice is given to those who have been categorised as obese.
Of course, the accumulation of superfluous non-force producing tissue – aka fat mass – is the consequence of poor dietary practices and a lack of physical activity. (It has been argued in recent times that there are other contributing factors to obesity such as socio-economic deprivation, environmental pollution, and/or a dysfunctional microbiota.)
Related: can you commit to this 21-Day Fat-Loss Challenge?
If we consistently consume more calories than we burn off the body starts to store the surplus as fat, which is latent energy to be used in times of dearth. Over the years this surplus can accumulate as excess visceral and subcutaneous fat. Being overweight increases your ‘risk of serious health problems like: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke [and] certain types of cancer,’ (NHS – 2022).
Exercise has been shown to be one of the most effective methods of improving body composition and reducing excess fat. Exercise is most efficacious when practiced regularly and along with a plant-based, calorie-restricted diet.
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long-term effect of exercise #4: Improved physical performance
In outlining the long term effects of exercise the discussion typically revolves around health improvements and reduced disease risk. That’s understandable. For people who do not enjoy exercise, it’s nice to know that some benefit will come from all those hours of sweat, tears and toil.
However, what is rarely mentioned are the many fitness developments that take place as a consequence of long-term exercise.
For example, in the epic textbook Physiology of Sport and Exercise, the authors bring our attention to the many ways regular aerobic activity improves our physicality.
In addition to causing body composition changes, positively tipping the scales in favour of fat-free mass, cardio can also lower resting heart rate, increase respiration, stimulate metabolic activity, while also enhancing all aspects of cardiovascular function.
Of course, our physicality can be improved with other forms of exercise besides cardio. Resistance training is beneficial for a multitude of reasons. By including weightlifting (circuits, HIIT, CrossFit) in your fitness routine you stand to gain more than just strength.
Regular resistance training promotes muscle hypertrophy. A recognised benefit of long-term resistance training, hypertrophy results in ‘actual structural changes in the muscles as a result of an increase in either the number of muscle fibres. . . or the size of existing fibres,’ (Physiology of Sport and Exercise – p.98).
This physiological adaptation enhances both strength and muscular endurance – defined as the ability to perform multiple contractions before fatigue. Furthermore, by stimulating hypertrophy in early life, when the body is more willing, we can reduce muscle atrophy as we age. Thus, we can carry our strength into our advanced years.
Now that you have a comprehensive insight into just a handful of ways exercise improves health, wellbeing and fitness over the long-term, it's time to dispense with theory and start getting practical.
Well, why not start your fitness journey with the Hungry4Fitness 6-Week Kettlebell Training Programme? Designed for all levels of fitness and abilities, this programme will provide you with a wealth of workouts while also keeping your focused and motivated.
And if you ever want to spice-up a pre-existing training routine, go to our dedicated Fitness and Workout Page where you will find a veritable goldmine of training sessions.
¹Frontiers in Cellular Science: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncel.2019.00363/full
Front. Cell. Neurosci., 07 August 2019
² Liberman, D. (2021) Exercised: The science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health. USA. Penguin.
³ J.R. Lustig, B.J.G. Strauss, in Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition), 2003
⁴ NHS BMI calculator including tips on weight loss: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/bmi-calculator/
⁵ W. Larry Kenney, Jack H. Wilmore, David L. Costill (2019) Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Human Kinetics; 7th edition.