Physical activity is about more than just flexing your muscles.
Strength training at the gym, a brisk walk around the neighborhood, or a high-intensity aerobic workout in your living room positively benefits the rest of your day.
Whether you need an extra burst of encouragement to keep up your existing routine or a nudge to get you started, learning about the endless exercise benefits is a great motivator. Here are 12 benefits of regular exercise and how to start building a sustainable routine.
12 benefits of regular exercise
Regular exercise can make both your body and your mind healthier, from improving your mood to aiding heart and lung health. Let’s dive into 12 reasons to get regular physical activity, with scientific data to back each of them up.
1. Puts you in a good mood
Whether you need a kickstart to your morning after waking up early or an activity to manage stress after a challenging workday, exercise can clear your mind and improve your mood, according to one review. Aerobic exercise and resistance training both stimulate the production of enkephalins, dynorphins, and endorphins, also known as happy hormones.
The review found that these chemicals are involved in different cognitive and behavioral processes and can improve executive function, enhance your mood, and bring down your stress levels. And even better news is that a small amount of exercise can bring you these effects. A single 30-minute routine can have you riding the wave of happy hormones.
2. Improves your mental health
Consistent exercise contributes to neuroplasticity by making your brain more sensitive to serotonin. Over time, it gives you more resilience to stress, which can help regulate mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Exercising regularly is a proactive approach to mental fitness, as neuroplasticity creates more resistance to the stressors that can stimulate bouts of anxiety and sadness.
From a psychological point of view, physical activity is a potential mental illness treatment to explore alongside therapy with a mental health professional for chronic issues. Exercise is such an effective form of treatment that some patients even experience withdrawal symptoms after dropping their exercise routines.
3. Builds muscle mass
In healthy adults, muscle mass makes up roughly 40% of total body weight. Your muscles are integral to maintaining posture, breathing, and movement, but they also store nutrients and regulate your metabolism. Your peak muscle mass begins to naturally decline at age 25, and by the time you’re 80 years old, you’ll have lost 30% of it, which means its benefits wane too.
Muscle loss relates closely to bone loss. As you get older, the combination of lower bone and muscle strength can cause impaired movement, trouble balancing, and higher risks of osteoporosis and fractured bones. Falls and broken bones in older adults can significantly lessen quality of life because your bones take longer to heal as you get older.
Regular physical activity builds bone density and strengthens muscles, which lessens the natural stresses of aging on your muscles. In other words: exercise aids your body’s longevity.
4. Boosts your energy
If you slug through your workday and feel tired all the time, it may not be because you need to top off your coffee. Approximately 20% of adults experience persistent fatigue because of a sedentary lifestyle — and caffeine or a nap can’t fix those bad habits.
At least 20 minutes of low-to-moderate exercise can increase your energy levels. And if you keep up a regular routine, you’re likely to feel long-term effects on your energy throughout the day and throughout your life.
That’s because when you exercise, your body produces more mitochondria inside your muscle cells, which turn food and oxygen into fuel. The more of them you have in your body, the higher your energy reserves and better your ability to ration energy efficiently.
5. Increases lung capacity
Whether engaging in high-intensity exercise or taking a calm walk through the park, your lungs are in action. Your lungs engage in two important ways: they pull oxygen into the body to provide energy and push out the carbon dioxide waste you create during energy production.
The harder you work out, the more oxygen and carbon dioxide your body has to process. This means that exercising regularly gives you larger breathing reserves, allowing your body to incorporate oxygen into your bloodstream more efficiently.
Even if you live with lung disease, it’s important to get regular exercise to strengthen your lungs and alleviate some of its effects. Always consult your doctor or a physical therapist to find types of exercises that you can incorporate into your daily living without harming your lungs.
6. Improves heart health
You can use exercise as both a preventable measure and therapeutic treatment for cardiovascular diseases — the leading causes of mortality globally.
Similar to the effects of exercise on the lungs, physical activity requires your heart to adapt and strengthen to increase oxygen and blood flow. Over time, the restructuring of your heart helps regulate high blood pressure, decreases inflammation of the blood vessels, and lowers resting heart rate. And regular exercise can increase your production of healthy cholesterol.
The combined benefits of regular exercise reduce stress on the heart and improve cardiovascular functions, both for healthy people and those living with heart disease.
7. Strengthens memory
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that controls learning and memory, and acute and regular exercise stimulates blood flow to the brain and increases the volume of the hippocampus. Adults with a history of higher fitness tend to have hippocampal lobes with higher volumes than non-fit adults, which can delay the natural shrinking of the brain and accompanying memory loss.
Studies also show that exercise can help with memory function in adults at risk of, or already experiencing, declining brain health. Long-term exercise intervention programs improve cognitive function and lessen symptoms in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. If you’re worried about your aging brain, exercise is one way to help it stay healthy.
8. Controls diabetes
While you can’t control your genetic disposition, exercise can prevent or regulate Type 2 diabetes. Physical activity, when you combine it with modest weight loss, lowers the prospect of Type 2 diabetes by up to 58% in high-risk patients.
Aerobic activity and resistance training are effective at making your body more sensitive to insulin, the cells that transform blood sugar into energy. This helps regulate the disease. But the effects of energy on insulin sensitivity also depend on external factors unique to your body and lifestyle. If you do have diabetes or are at risk, always consult with a doctor to create the right plan for your needs.
9. Reduces the risk of cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, physical activity can help you manage a healthy weight for your body, which regulates cancer-causing hormones and maintains a healthy immune system. Research has found that physical activity has the potential to lower the risk of several cancers, including:
Likewise, the American Cancer Society estimates that unhealthy body weight and obesity are responsible for 14–20% of cancer deaths in the US. Healthy weights and active lifestyles have been linked to better treatment response and survival outcomes, lower risk of recurrent cancer, and decreased chances of developing new cancer.
10. Takes care of your skin
The trick to healthy, glowing skin isn’t just about your skincare routine. Your fitness also plays a role. Exercise coupled with other good habits like mindful eating and proper sleep hygiene can help delay your skin’s natural aging process.
Exercise improves your skin’s ability to retain moisture, preventing future dermal problems and keeping your skin well-hydrated. It also increases blood flow even when you aren’t engaged in vigorous activity, which nourishes your cells and removes toxins.
Plus, regular exercise aids stress levels and helps you manage your sleep quality, decreasing the likelihood of conditions like acne, eczema, or psoriasis.
11. Regulates your sleep quality
Exercise helps you fall asleep faster and improves quality by increasing slow-wave sleep. This type of deep sleep plays a vital role in your growth, memory, and immune function and is key to helping you wake yourself up feeling energized. And when you have a good sleep schedule, you’re more likely to be in a better mood, stay concentrated, and perform better at work.
More studies show that exercise can lessen the effects of sleep disorders. Even moderate-intensity resistance exercise and stretching have improved objective and subjective sleep in patients with chronic insomnia. Another study found that regularly scheduled exercise improved the sleep quality of older adults with age-related sleep disorders. Try using a sleep tracker to gauge quality and look for changes when you start exercising more.
12. Reduces chronic pain
Traditionally, treatment for chronic pain was rest and relaxation. But studies now demonstrate that, depending on the condition and its severity, physical activity and tailored exercise programs can alleviate chronic pain conditions.
While the results are highly individualized and there’s still room for more research, there actually aren’t usually any adverse effects of exercise on chronic pain, depending on your condition. If you’re dealing with long-term pain that affects your physical well-being, consult your doctor about a treatment plan involving physical activity.
5 ways to incorporate exercise into your daily life
Small habits can have big health benefits, especially when it comes to exercise. Whether you want to level up your current routine or encourage yourself to get started, here are five ways to increase your physical activity:
Work out anywhere: The gym isn’t the only place where you can squeeze in an effective workout. If you struggle to travel to a gym, can’t afford a membership, or simply feel more comfortable working out alone, there are plenty of alternative options.
Consider free virtual workouts online or developing outdoor routines for your backyard or a public park. Working out with a friend can also make you feel more comfortable.
Take the stairs: Getting more exercise in small ways throughout the day can make big differences in keeping you active. If your office is close enough to home, consider walking or biking, and use the stairs instead of the elevator.
Start an office challenge: Accountability and mutual support can motivate you to stick to a regular workout routine. There are plenty of apps to track weekly workouts and meet communal goals, so try finding one that works for your team. Even a step challenge is a good option. Consider starting a special channel or thread to encourage and track everyone’s progress.
Start slow: Health is a lifetime challenge that requires patience and consistency. Don’t put pressure on yourself to become a gym rat overnight — or at all. Ease into a routine and adjust as necessary. Moving at your own pace may keep you from getting frustrated and throwing in the towel.
Set goals: If you struggle to find the willpower to keep going, seeing yourself progress can motivate you. You can set small goals for any routine, like improving your running time or increasing the maximum weight on your deadlift.
Even stretching every day or going for a weekly family walk are great fitness goals. Find a routine that allows you to hit incremental points and adjust when you hit plateaus.
Move at your own pace
Unlike a marathon, better health doesn’t have a finish line. It’s a lifetime commitment that requires you to stay motivated and consistent, and that’s no easy feat.
Now that you know several exercise benefits and a few small habits, it’s time to embrace your fitness journey. Remember: if you hit a plateau, lose sight of your motivation, or dive too quickly into the deep end, it’s okay to slow down and adjust. In the long run, your exercise habits will pay off.