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Why Is Exercise Important? 10 Benefits of Exercise

The benefits of exercise are diverse and significant to your long-term health. Everything from your cognitive function, bones, muscles, and cancer prevention spans the benefits of exercise. It’s a pillar of healthy living, supporting not only your physical well-being—but your mental health and overall quality of life as well.

Exercise benefits
Exercise improves fitness, builds strength, and promotes good health

Exercise is a physical activity that enhances or maintains fitness, improves the resilience of different areas of the body, and builds strength and endurance. Exercise varies broadly, encompassing weightlifting to low-intensity yoga and more. These variations mean its health advantages are widely applicable, though not all activities provide the same effects nor are all types of activities suitable for your lifestyle or body.

Vigorous activities provide the most benefits. These encompass universal exercises like swimming, walking, lunges, squats, and more. These movements are ideal for any fitness level and promote a healthier lifestyle, but be mindful of your body’s needs. Some activities may demonstrate more benefits than others. However, many workouts are adjustable and can suit your body’s needs.

The end goal is your long-term health and fitness, which the primary advantages of exercise help to ensure. Below, we discuss these advantages in more detail and how they affect you, as illustrated in Figure 1. 

10 health benefits of exercise
Figure 1. This infographic shows the benefits of regular exercise.

1. Reduces heart disease risk

One major benefit of exercise is that it reduces the risk of heart disease. Heart disease encompasses conditions that affect the heart muscle and blood vessels, such as coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and hypertension. Exercise increases blood flow, which benefits the heart by delivering more oxygen and nutrients to its tissues. It additionally removes waste products in the bloodstream like carbon dioxide or lactic acid more efficiently, increases the flexibility of blood vessels, and maintains healthy blood pressure levels.

These activities improve the overall function of the cardiovascular system. The heart in turn pumps more blood with each beat, which reduces the strain on the organ and increases its resilience against diseases. Benefits even extend to people with heart disease. For example, the 2021 publication “Exercise-based Cardiac Rehabilitation For Coronary Heart Disease” found that exercise-based heart rehabilitation lowers the risk of heart attacks and potentially lowers the rate of mortality while analyzing people with coronary heart disease (CHD).

2. Enhances sleep quality

Exercise enhances sleep quality by promoting faster and deeper sleep onset. Consistent physical activity during the day or afternoon aligns with your body’s internal clock, which dominates your sleep-wake cycle. Working out supports this cycle in two ways. Firstly, it increases your body’s core temperature, which drops after doing moderate physical activity. This signals the body it’s time to rest. Secondly, exercise reduces stress levels by lessening cortisol (the stress hormone) and anxiety. This allows for more restful sleep as it decreases nighttime disturbances and mental distress.

Furthermore, people who exercise regularly rather than sporadically find it easier to fall asleep due to the sleep-wake cycle alignment. Even children and adolescents who practice sports demonstrate a higher quality of sleep, as outlined in the study, “Effect of Different Sports Practice on Sleep Quality and Quality of Life in Children and Adolescents.” This means that exercise is a key aspect of good sleep hygiene. Moreover, by sleeping better, you further benefit your health and reduce the risk of conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and mood disorders like depression.

3. Builds muscles and bones

Exercise builds muscles and bones through muscle hypertrophy and increased bone density. The former repairs and strengthens muscle fiber, while the latter stimulates bone formation, making both aspects stronger and more resilient. Various exercises help achieve this, including weightlifting. Weightlifting encourages bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis. This in turn reduces the risk of fractures, which is crucial for maintaining mobility and independence as you age.

Keep in mind that too much exercise poses risks for your bones and muscles. Physical activity that pushes past your bodily limits increases your chance of stress fractures, tendonitis, and muscle strains. This potentially leads to long-term damage and extended periods of rest and recovery. Conversely, inactivity causes loss of bone and muscle. Severe cases even lead to atrophy, stressing the need for consistent but balanced physical activity throughout your life.

4. Helps manage your weight

Regular exercise helps you manage your weight by burning calories and increasing your metabolism. Physical activity expends the energy calories from food and fat reserves provide. The more often you exercise, the more energy you expend. In conjunction with healthy eating habits and reduced calorie intake, this results in a calorie deficit and weight loss or weight stability. Additionally, physical activity raises your metabolic rate by increasing your muscle mass. Muscle tissue burns more calories at rest than fat tissue does. As a result, the calories you burn at rest increase, helping you to manage your weight even when you’re not physically active.

In short, exercise is key to effective weight management, but its effects and how your body responds are individualistic. Not everyone loses, gains, or maintains weight the same way due to differences in genetics, metabolism, diet, and lifestyle factors. The exact amount of exercise you’ll need to stay at a healthy weight also varies. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly, but you may require more or less depending on your body.

5. Improves mental health

Exercise improves your mental health through the release of neurotransmitters like endorphins, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Endorphins act as natural painkillers and mood elevators, which promote a sense of wellness and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Serotonin provides a stabilizing effect on mood, appetite, and sleep, prompting a feeling of happiness. Meanwhile, norepinephrine enhances alertness and energy, which improves your focus and reduces your stress.

The mental benefits of exercise are additionally supported by scientific research. One review, titled “Exercise Interventions For Mental Disorders In Young People,” analyzes outcomes of controlled trials for physical activity. It found that young people who participate in light to moderate exercise (particularly outdoors and in groups) demonstrate less anxiety and depression. It additionally acknowledges that more research is needed to understand long-term effects as well as the impact on other conditions like psychosis or bipolar disorder, but reaffirms the value of exercise for your overall mental well-being.

6. Regulates insulin levels

Exercise helps regulate insulin levels through two mechanisms. Firstly, physical activity increases insulin sensitivity, which allows the body’s cells to use the available insulin more efficiently. It lowers blood sugar levels and reduces the burden on the pancreas to produce insulin. Secondly, exercise causes muscles to contract, which leads your cells to use glucose for energy instead of insulin, regulating blood sugar more efficiently.

Similar to weight management, the effect exercise has on insulin levels varies from person to person due to genetics, diet, and current health status. Even the type and intensity of physical activity is a factor. The 2022 study, “The Association Between Physical Activity and Insulin Level,” writes that high-intensity physical activity benefits insulin levels, as well as conditions like dyslipidemia and hyperuricemia. If vigorous exercise isn’t an option, physical activity remains an effective tool for reducing the risk of or controlling the symptoms of insulin disorders like type 2 diabetes due to its overarching benefits.

7. Keeps thinking skills sharp

Exercise improves your cognitive function which sharpens thinking skills. Cognitive function defines your ability to process thoughts, including memory, decision-making, and problem-solving. Maintaining brain health is vital to cognition—which exercise helps support by increasing blood flow to the brain and delivering more oxygen and nutrients. Additionally, exercise stimulates brain growth. It releases chemicals essential for new blood vessels and the continued development of cells.

Physical activity also makes you more alert. This allows you to concentrate better, enhance your creativity, and improve overall mental agility. It boosts wakefulness and alleviates grogginess earlier in the day so you’re able to stay on task and focus your activities. Furthermore, exercise alleviates stress and anxiety, and enhances sleep quality. This in turn improves your cognitive function and thinking skills by reducing the symptoms of mental distress and poor sleep. In short, the benefits of exercise on your thinking skills are multifaceted and reaffirm the importance of staying consistently active.

8. Reduces cancer risk

Exercise reduces cancer risk through various mechanisms. For example, exercise helps regulate hormones like insulin and estrogen. High levels of these hormones are associated with cancer risk. Furthermore, exercise releases anti-inflammatory substances in the body and decreases the production of pro-inflammatory substances. This release reduces inflammation in the body, making your body less conducive to cancer cell growth and propagation. Physical activity supports other aspects as well, including enhancing your immune system and healthy weight level—both link to cancer prevention and maintaining optimal health.

The extent of how effective exercise is in reducing cancer risk continues to be a point of interest for researchers. According to observational studies, the National Cancer Institute’s “Physical Activity and Cancer” page explains that exercise reduces the risk of bladder, breast, colon, endometrial, esophageal, kidney, and gastric cancers. The Institute outlines that more evidence is needed to confirm a definitive connection, but adds there are even exercise benefits for cancer survivors. It acts as a way to support their mental health, boost bone health, increase sleep quality, and minimize the side effects of chemotherapy.

9. Aids in quitting smoking

Consistent exercise helps you quit smoking through its mental and physical benefits. Physically, exercise releases several chemicals that improve your well-being, including dopamine and endorphins. Endorphins are natural pain relievers and stress reducers, alleviating depression from nicotine withdrawal and curbing cravings. Dopamine from physical exertion sends pleasure signals to the brain, substituting the same chemical nicotine provides. Additionally, exercise boosts respiratory and heart health, which helps you recover from smoking side effects.

Meanwhile, physical activity mentally benefits you because it provides an outlet. It distracts from cigarette cravings and helps you focus on recovery. New habits replace the old addiction, reaffirming your self-efficacy. Improvements in your heart and lung health also motivate you to maintain your smoke-free status. Furthermore, regular physical activity pairs well with other smoking recovery methods, like nicotine replacement therapy and a healthier diet. Both serve to promote healthier habits and shift your mindset away from nicotine cravings.

10. Decreases fall risk

Exercise decreases the risk of falls by improving your balance and coordination. Many forms of exercises such as squats, lunges, and leg presses strengthen your body, which aids your coordination and reduces the risk of injury. Other activities, like yoga and tai chi, are similarly effective because they promote balance. Meanwhile, strength training (a standard type of exercise) builds your muscle mass and bone density. This supports basic coordination and reduces injuries if falls do happen.

Fall risks increase as you age due to declining muscle and bone mass. Furthermore, conditions like osteoporosis (weak bones) or sarcopenia (low muscle mass) leave you vulnerable to falls and increase the risk of injuries. Appropriate exercise helps curb these chances by maintaining or improving muscle strength, bone density, and balance. It additionally supports recovery from falls through enhanced physical resilience and improved healing processes, enabling quicker recuperation and reducing the impact of injuries.

What are the exercises for everyone?

Exercises for everyone refer to physical activities that are universally applicable. They encompass movements with broad benefits and adaptable routines suitable for any fitness level. This includes activities like swimming, pushups, squats, and walking. These activities are often ideal for any age or physical condition but personal limitations vary. Therefore, it’s important to adjust the movements to your needs or select other universal exercises, such as lightweight bodyweight routines or stretching and flexibility training, like yoga and tai chi. Consistently performing these movements promotes the benefits of working out, regardless of their intensity. They also provide a gateway into a consistent exercise routine as you may approach them at your speed.

How to exercise regularly

Exercising regularly requires a consistent routine and reinforced habits. Start by setting realistic goals based on your current fitness level and interest. The benefits of daily exercise apply to anyone, but it’s important to set goals that accommodate your needs and safety. Next, choose activities you enjoy, as this encourages your interest in working out. Additionally, select workouts to vary throughout your routine and that target different muscle groups equally.

After which, develop a schedule where you exercise at the same every day or every other to establish new habits. Gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts and track your progress to keep up motivation. Lastly, stay mindful that all the health benefits of exercise may not be immediately apparent. Some changes you’ll notice quickly, like shifts in your mood, but other effects like weight change require time and dedication.

Is it okay to exercise every day?

Yes, it is okay to exercise every day as long as you exercise safely. Physical activity of any intensity is potentially detrimental if you’re not considerate of your body’s needs and limits. It’s also important to vary your activities to prevent overtraining and allow for adequate recovery. For example, a mixture of strength, cardio, and flexibility training provides a safe, well-rounded routine for most adults. It’s additionally important to vary the focus of your exercise for optimal health, such as working on your legs and upper body on separate days.

Furthermore, speak with a physical trainer and a doctor to determine safe activities for you. People with physical disabilities and medical conditions often require different routines to prevent strain or injury. Likewise, listen to your body. Incorporate rest or lower-intensity days to prevent burnout and overuse injuries.

Is 2 hours of exercise a day too much?

Yes, two hours of exercise a day is too much for some people. Working out for two hours may lead to overtraining, which increases your risk of injury, fatigue, and decreased performance. Moreover, not everyone is capable of maintaining output for that long nor do they have the means or time to do so.

That said, if two per day aligns with your goals and is safe to perform, then it is sufficient for your body. Be mindful of the intensity and types of movement you conduct. Thirty minutes to one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity are ideal for the average adult. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week alongside two days of strength training. Segment this as you see fit while leaving room for rest and recovery.

Do I need to go to the gym to exercise?

No, you do not need to go to the gym to exercise. Many workouts are ideal for home, outdoor, or community spaces. You may even work out in the privacy of your office. Moreover, you can modify many routines that require specialized equipment so they’re safe to perform outside of a gym. Others are traditionally done in different settings which provide unique benefits. For instance, walking, running, and cycling are outdoor activities that provide fresh air and natural scenery, which enhances your mental well-being along with your physical fitness. The most important aspect is to find physical activities that you enjoy, with or without attending the gym, as the end goal is ultimately your long-term well-being.