by Aaron Friday, 12/15/2017
Most people are aware that exercise has health benefits. Certainly, we are aware that exercising makes us feel better and can help us lose weight, but there is more. Regular exercise improves virtually every measure of our health. In fact, our physical fitness level is one of the strongest predictors of future health.
This article summarizes the major health benefits of a regular exercise program. Not every potential benefit is listed; you can be sure there are many more. Also, be aware that these benefits apply to regular, long-term exercise programs and not sporadic, random efforts that make us feel better for only a short time.
Reduces the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Regular exercise helps prevent cardiovascular disease (heart attacks, strokes, and other problems). This is a huge deal, because cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the entire world. Exercise prevents it directly through the following physical adaptations:
- Healthier body composition (more muscle and less fat). Exercise prevents and reverses obesity. See Why Should We Care About Muscle Mass? (Part 1) for more information about body composition.
- Reduced blood pressure
- Improved cholesterol profile: higher good cholesterol (HDL), lower bad cholesterol (LDL), and lower triglycerides
- A stronger heart muscle, more flexible arteries and veins, and improved whole-body blood circulation
Improves Insulin Sensitivity
Regular exercise makes our bodies insulin-sensitive, which means that only a small amount of insulin is needed to keep our blood sugar at a healthy level, restore glycogen levels, and stimulate protein synthesis. This is a very good thing. The opposite condition is to be insulin-resistant, which means that a lot of insulin is needed to perform these same functions. Too much insulin (known as hyperinsulinemia) is destructive to our health. It damages blood vessels and is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and common cancers.
Glycogen-intensive workouts like kettlebell classes can improve insulin sensitivity for up to two days, as glycogen that was used up during the workout is being restored. To keep your insulin sensitivity high, you should do a good workout at least every other day, although more frequently can be even better.
Regular exercise also helps us lose bodyfat, build muscle mass, and manage stress, which also improve insulin sensitivity.
Promotes Orthopedic Health
Regular, weight-bearing exercise increases bone density, which reduces the risk of osteoporosis. Just as muscles adapt to resistance training by getting bigger and stronger, bones and other connective tissues respond to stressors by growing denser and stronger. This makes them less likely to get injured. To increase bone density, our training needs to place stress on the skeleton, including the spine.
The improved core musculature that comes from resistance training supports the spine, which protects it from injury and helps reduce back pain. Also, the improved body awareness and lifting skill that come from resistance training help us avoid movements and positions that put our spinal health at risk.
Regular exercise also improves joint mobility and stability, which can reduce arthritis symptoms and prevent injury. Since cartilage has no blood supply, it relies on synovial fluid for nourishment. The movement of exercise helps to circulate this fluid and keep the joints healthy.
Staying injury free means we can remain active, keep up our regular exercise, and maintain muscle mass (thereby preventing sarcopenia, which is the loss of muscle mass associated with aging). See Why Should We Care About Muscle Mass? (Part 2).
Promotes Mental Health
Regular exercise has significant mental health benefits, including stress reduction and improved cognition. To learn more, see Does Exercise Support Mental Health?
Not really, but exercise can help postpone it. Muscular strength (measured as one-repetition maximums for bench press and leg press) has been shown to be inversely associated with death from all causes.
Clearly, one of the very best things we can do to improve and maintain our health is commit to a life-long habit of exercise. The benefits are impossible to ignore.