Exercise is an integral part of any successful weight management plan. But regular exercise also offers several health perks that go way beyond the scale. Read on to find out how else keeping active can help you thrive.
“Exercise” and “weight loss” often go hand in hand. In fact, exercise is almost always part of an effective weight management strategy - and for good reason. The CDC1 suggests that along with decreasing the number of calories you eat, engaging in regular physical activity is key to losing weight because it increases the number of calories your body burns off for energy. And regular exercise is essential for maintaining weight as well.
While weight management might be one of the first things people think of when it comes to exercise, there are plenty of other reasons to keep your body moving regularly. Below are four more perks physical activity can offer that have nothing to do with the scale.
1. Exercise reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease
As the leading cause of death globally, cardiovascular disease claims the lives of 17.9 million2 people each year. Cardiovascular disease3 is characterized by plaque buildup that causes the narrowing of the body's arteries, making it difficult for blood to flow through properly. Along with a healthy diet4, a lifestyle that includes regular physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease5.
Regular exercise makes the heart stronger, allowing more blood to pump with less effort. This results in lower blood pressure.There are two numbers in a blood pressure reading, which is measured in mm Hg. The top number is the systolic pressure (SBP) and the bottom number is the diastolic pressure (DBP). Exercising regularly can lower both SBP and DBP. One 2019 study6 reviewed the effects of aerobic exercise on blood pressure among 860 participants who had high blood pressure. Compared to people who did not exercise, those who exercise regularly saw a reduction in their SBP by an average 12.26 mm HG and DBP by an average 6.12 mm Hg.
Regular aerobic exercise also helps improve the heart’s muscle tissue function7 by increasing its strength and the amount of oxygen delivered to it while at the same time decreasing the amount of oxygen it needs. Exercise also lowers heart rate, inflammation, and body weight, while elevating beneficial HDL cholesterol.7
And resistance training appears to be just as effective. A 2017 analysis8 of the Women’s Health Study followed the exercise habits and health outcomes of 35,754 healthy women over 14 years and found that women who engaged in 60 to 120 minutes of resistance training per week had a similar 22% lowered risk of cardiovascular disease than the women who performed 60 to 120 minutes of aerobic activity each week.
2. Exercise builds stronger bones
For most people, bone mass reaches its peak around the age of 30, after which time bone mass begins to diminish. Maintaining strong bones9 is essential, especially as we age, because weak and brittle bones can lead to fractures. Fortunately, bone is living tissue10 constantly adapting to its environment, and regular exercise is the key to helping keep bones strong and healthy.
Aerobic exercises like walking, cycling, and swimming are widely known to deliver a host of health benefits11, but research12 shows that these types of activities may fall short when it comes to providing bone the stimulation it needs to grow stronger. To strengthen, bones need a mechanical load13 or strain that's greater than the load it normally receives. For example, when you stand upright, your body resists gravity, which puts a load on your bones. But your bones are most likely already adapted to this kind of load if you spend any amount of time during each day standing. To build stronger bones, a much higher load with greater compression on the bones is needed. Bones maintain a biological system that generates bone formation by involving mature bone cells called osteocytes14. Osteocytes help to regulate bone remodeling by sensing a mechanical load and then transmitting orders to other bone cells called osteoclasts and osteoblasts15 to break down, reabsorb bone, and lay down new bone.
Weight-bearing exercises16 force the body to work against gravity and provide effective mechanical loading to build bones. These include jumping, hopping, climbing stairs, and resistance exercise. Resistance exercise is shown to be especially effective for the maintenance and growth of bone mass and density. Common resistance training exercises can include using weight machines, free weights, medicine balls, and elastic bands. Weighted lunges, knee extension inflection, back extension, abdominal exercises, squats, and deadlifts are also weight-bearing exercises that target the major muscle groups that help strengthen the hip and spine.
3. Exercise boosts immunity
Exercise may also help to improve the body’s immune system. When the body faces invading bacteria or viruses, the immune system kicks into high gear and triggers inflammation, a biological response that prevents, limits, and repairs damage caused by them. This type of inflammation17, called acute inflammation, is necessary and beneficial because it helps speed up the healing process. But when inflammation is persistent and chronic, the body thinks it is still under attack, causing the immune system to fight and cause harm to healthy tissues and organs.
When the immune system is activated, proteins called cytokines18 are released to help regulate the growth, communication, and activity among other immune system cells. Certain cytokines can either be pro-inflammatory, making disease worse, or anti-inflammatory, promoting healing. Research19 shows that regular exercise, specifically moderate-intensity exercises like brisk walking, water aerobics, or tennis, reduces the production20 of pro-inflammatory cytokines while increasing the concentration of anti-inflammatory cytokines, resulting in less inflammation for the body.
Reducing chronic inflammation is considered a key factor21 in preventing chronic disease.
In addition to reducing the body’s pro-inflammatory cytokine profile, exercise also eases the body’s inflammatory response by lessening the body’s amount of visceral fat tissue22, a risk factor for developing many chronic conditions like obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. Visceral fat, fat located around the abdomen, is shown to activate the immune system and release inflammatory cytokines23 from abdominal fat tissue, leading to a chronic low-grade inflammatory state and disease. According to research24, people who live a sedentary lifestyle, particularly those who engage in an excessive amount of television viewing, are more likely to have visceral fat. On the other hand, regular exercise is shown to decrease visceral fat21, consequently decreasing the activation of the immune system and its inflammatory response.
4. Exercise enhances mood
Evidence25 shows that regular exercise can also be a powerful and cost-effective mood booster by reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety - encouraging news in light of the fact that we are currently facing a national mental health crisis26 due to stressors like COVID-19, healthcare, and societal concerns.
Exercise is shown to improve psychological well-being in several ways. A 2019 systematic review25 analyzed 38 studies to look at the effects of exercise on mood among adult subjects. Specifically, it looked at how exercise intensity, duration, and type influenced the subjects’ mood. For starters, the researchers found that exercise promoted self-efficacy - that is, a belief in your ability to successfully perform a task you set out to accomplish. They believe this boost to self-efficacy, along with an increase in self-esteem after having mastered a physical activity, may ease depression and cause us to evaluate ourselves more positively.
Many people find exercising an enjoyable social outlet27 as well. Training a marathon or hitting the pickleball courts with a group can lead to meaningful social interactions, increasing motivation, consistency, and a feeling of connectedness. In addition, exercise may even lead to changes in brain structure28 that brighten mood. For example, aerobic exercise increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, an important brain region that helps regulate emotions.
How much exercise is needed to see an improvement in mood? Interestingly, even a single workout session might be enough to feel the difference. One study29 compared the mental health effects of a single bout of exercise with no exercise among 144 adults between the ages of 19 and 93 who were randomly assigned to either an exercise group or a non-exercise group. Those who exercised performed a stationary cycling activity that consisted of a four-minute warm-up, 15 minutes of pedaling, and three minutes of cooldown. Immediately afterward, all of the participants completed a mood assessment. Thirteen words that describe emotion (angry, anxious, sat, bored, fatigued, quiet, enthusiastic, quiet, excited, calm, happy, relaxed, and content) randomly appeared one after the other on a computer screen. As each word flashed on the screen, the subjects were asked to indicate how much or how little they identified for that word, where 1 indicated “very little or not at all” and 5 indicated “extremely.” It was found that compared to those who did not exercise, those in the exercise group across all ages identified stronger with the positive emotion words following their workout.
If you want to incorporate more exercise into your lifestyle to enjoy a perked-up mood, some researchers25 suggest workout sessions that last 10 to 30 minutes and include anaerobic exercise30. Aerobic exercise is any activity that uses large muscle groups, is rhythmic in nature, and is sustained for a period of time, like swimming, cycling, and walking. Anaerobic exercise is characterized as intense physical activity of short duration, such as HIIT, weight lifting, pushups, and squats.
The bottom line
Exercise is essential in a healthy lifestyle if losing weight and maintaining weight loss is your goal. But weight management is far from the only reason to incorporate regular physical activity into your life. Exercising consistently offers a variety of other health perks, like reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions, building stronger bones to prevent disabling fractures, boosting the immune system to help fight off illness and disease more effectively, and enhancing mood by alleviating depression and anxiety. And it does not take much! Even exercising for as little as one minute or less throughout the day31, say, climbing stairs for 15 to 30 seconds three times a day, is shown to improve your respiratory and circulatory system’s ability to supply oxygen to muscles for the energy production needed during a workout. However you choose to exercise, celebrate all the different ways you are improving your health!