The Benefits of Exercise

How regular exercise benefits your physical and psychological health

Most people know that exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle. In recent decades, the number of people in the UK taking regular exercise has increased, but many still do too little exercise.

Exercise protects physical and mental health. It has a particularly positive effect on the respiratory, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems.

By taking regular physical exercise, you can reduce your risk of developing long-term disease, increase your life expectancy, and improve your quality of life in later years. For example, regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus or, if you have the condition, can help control your blood sugar level. When you make exercise a part of your daily routine, you will probably find it a lot easier to perform ordinary tasks, such as shopping, gardening, doing housework, and climbing stairs. In addition to the more obvious physical benefits, exercising regularly can improve your psychological wellbeing. Developing a habit of exercising with other people can also help you to make new friends.

Cardiovascular health

Research has shown that people who do little or no exercise are at increased risk of coronary artery disease, heart attack (see Myocardial infarction), and stroke. However, for exercise to give you effective protection against heart disease, it has to be regular and sustained over your lifetime. Exercising only in your youth is no guarantee of benefits later in life.

When you exercise regularly, your heart becomes stronger and more efficient and can pump more blood with every heartbeat, making it able to cope with extra demands. The amount of regular exercise that you take also influences your chance of surviving a heart attack if you should ever have one; people who have exercised regularly are more likely to survive.

Regular exercise helps to reduce blood cholesterol levels and lowers blood pressure. Both of these factors reduce the risk of developing fatty plaques in your arteries (see Atherosclerosis). Research shows that people who already have coronary artery disease or lower limb ischaemia may benefit from exercise because of the improvement that it makes to the blood supply. These benefits may be experienced within 2 months of starting regular exercise.

Respiratory health

Regular exercise improves the efficiency of your respiratory muscles and increases the usable volume of the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs. It also increases the efficiency of the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs. Active people are able to extract more oxygen from a single breath and have a slower breathing rate. If you have a respiratory disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, regular exercise may help to improve the amount of activity that you can do on a daily basis without feeling breathless.

Musculoskeletal health

Exercising improves the condition of your bones, joints, and muscles. Taking regular exercise helps you to keep yourself flexible and mobile for longer and improves your quality of life.

Maintaining strong bones

Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking and running, help to improve bone strength, density, and development. This kind of exercise is particularly important for physical development during childhood and adolescence, when the bones are still growing. It is also important for women of all ages to do weight-bearing exercises regularly because they help to slow down the accelerated bone loss caused by the decline in levels of the hormone oestrogen (see Osteoporosis) that occurs after the menopause.

Mobilizing and stabilizing joints

Regular exercise improves the flexibility of joints and minimizes stiffness. It also helps to stabilize joints by strengthening the muscles and ligaments surrounding them. By maintaining joint mobility, exercise can help you to remain independent and able to do more in later life. If you have a joint disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, strength-building exercises may stabilize affected joints and reduce further damage.

Increasing muscle strength

You should exercise your muscles regularly to keep them in good condition. Muscle size and strength can be increased with exercises that work against resistance, such as lifting moderate weights. Aerobic exercises that build stamina, such as running and cycling, make the muscles more efficient so that they can work for longer periods of time. Stronger muscles, and the increased confidence that often comes from feeling and looking fit, also improve your posture.

After about the age of 25, you lose a small amount of muscle each year as part of the normal aging process. If you keep your muscles strong and healthy, this loss of muscle bulk and strength can be kept to a minimum.

Lower back pain is often a result of poor muscle strength and lack of flexibility. Regularly doing exercises that concentrate on strengthening particular muscle groups and improving overall flexibility can help to prevent back pain (see Preventing back pain) and keep you mobile.

Psychological wellbeing

When you begin a programme of regular exercise, you may experience some psychological benefits from early on. For example, many people notice a feeling of wellbeing after they have been exercising; this is commonly thought to be the result of an increase in the production by the brain of morphine-like chemical compounds known as endorphins. These chemical compounds act as natural antidepressants, and they can help you to feel more relaxed.

Mildly anxious or depressed people may notice a marked improvement in their mood after exercising regularly for some time. For this reason, exercise is increasingly being incorporated into psychological therapies. You may find that exercise helps you to cope with stress. It also promotes regular, deep, and refreshing sleep.

By exercising regularly, you are likely to look and feel healthy, which can increase your self-esteem. You may also have a sense of achievement when you meet goals in your exercise routine.

Taking part in a team sport or joining a health club or gym can be a way of expanding your circle of friends. Team sports foster mutual respect, shared responsibility, and self-discipline. These benefits are widely recognized and are particularly important for children.

Research into the effects of exercise among people who work in offices has found that regular exercise generally leads to a more productive workforce.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

Back to top