Benefits of exercise

Expert reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next due for review January 2022

Regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Study after study shows the benefits it can have. Not only does regular exercise help you manage your weight and reduce your risk of developing diseases, it can help prevent and treat mental health problems. It can boost your wellbeing and mood, and is a great way to unwind from the stresses of life.

Here, we talk through each specific benefit of exercise and give you easy tips to get moving more often.

Exercise benefits everyone

No matter what their age, everyone benefits from exercise. Getting children active from an early age can instill healthy habits that may last a lifetime. Older people and seniors get huge benefits from keeping active.

Nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are now classed as either overweight or obese. So it’s more important than ever to get children active. Physical activity for children has a number of benefits.

  • It stimulates the development of the muscles, bones and joints, as well as the heart and lungs.
  • It helps children maintain a healthy weight.
  • It gives them an opportunity to interact with other people and make friends.
  • It can help young people manage symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Sedentary lifestyles, jobs and long commutes have put us more at risk of the dangers of inactivity compared with previous generations. Guidelines recommend that we take as much opportunity as we can to be active. Adults should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity over the course of the week. Alternatively, you can do 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise or even shorter amounts at very high intensity (such as sprints or climbing stairs). A combination of intensities is also an option.

It’s also important to do some strengthening exercises on at least two days a week. This could be activities such as heavy gardening or exercising with weights. Aim to do some physical activity every day.

Whatever your stage of life, there are plenty of different exercise options to try. Exercise doesn’t just mean going to the gym or heading out for a run. It may be as simple as walking to and from the shops instead of getting in the car. Or even getting off the bus a few stops earlier.

If you don’t currently do any exercise or haven’t done for a while, it needn’t take much effort to get started. After all, doing some physical activity is better than doing none at all. Even doing a little more exercise than usual can help reduce your risk of certain long-term health conditions. And it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. By becoming more active throughout your day, you can quite easily achieve the recommended activity levels.

Why do I need to keep active?

Being as active as possible provides a whole host of benefits and reduces your chance of getting a number of health conditions. For example, exercising regularly:

  • improves your muscular and cardiorespiratory fitness
  • improves your bone health
  • reduces your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension), coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers
  • helps manage your weight and reduces your risk of becoming obese
  • reduces anxiety and depression, and helps prevent other mental health problems
  • boosts your mood and wellbeing

You can read more about each of these benefits below.

Whether you’re just starting or have always been active, make sure you take steps to stay injury-free and avoid things like a muscle strain. Take things gradually to start with and build up from there. It’s important to eat the right foods to provide the fuel you need to exercise, and to drink enough water to keep you hydrated.

With so many health supplements and protein products available from supermarkets, health shops and the internet, it’s easy to be tempted. But a wholesome, balanced diet is the best plan of action for most people. If you’re an athlete considering taking a dietary supplement, it’s important you get the right advice from a sports dietitian. If you’re worried about having a deficiency, speak to your GP or a dietitian.

Keep your heart healthy

Exercise is one of the best things you can do to keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk of developing stroke or coronary heart disease. In fact, regular exercise can reduce your chance of cardiovascular disease by a third.

High blood pressure (hypertension) is common – around three in 10 adults in the UK have it. If you have high blood pressure, you’re more likely to have a stroke or heart failure. Doing regular exercise can help to reduce your blood pressure and the risk.

You can help to improve the balance of your cholesterol by exercising. There are two types of cholesterol – low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is sometimes called ‘bad’ cholesterol; HDL cholesterol is sometimes called ‘good’ cholesterol. High levels of LDL and low levels of HDL increase your risk of heart disease. But the good news is that exercise is linked to higher levels of HDL cholesterol.

Exercise tip

To reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, walk whenever possible. Think to yourself, can I do a particular journey or part of a journey on foot? Think twice before hopping into the car. Find ways to add activity to your day – it doesn’t need to be structured exercise. If you already walk, try upping the pace. Weather and work permitting, go for a walk at lunchtime. Even a quick walk at a brisk pace is better than sitting by your desk.

Keep your muscles, bones and joints strong

Regular exercise keeps your muscles, bones, joints and other connective tissue healthy.

Training with weights (or using your body weight to exercise) improves the function of your muscles and helps keep your bones strong and healthy. Physical activity can increase bone mineral density and helps to maintain strong bones. As you get older, you can start to lose muscle and bones density but you can help to prevent this by exercising regularly. Maintaining good muscle and bone strength throughout life is really important to help prevent injury, falls and fractures and to prevent osteoporosis. This is especially important as you age. But if you already have osteoporosis, weight-bearing exercise such as walking or exercising with weights is very helpful.

Lower back pain is common – up to six in 10 people in the UK have it at some time in their life, but if you exercise, you’re less likely to get it. If you have lower back pain, certain exercises can help to ease it and reduce the chance of it coming back.

If you have osteoarthritis (a common form of arthritis), it’s very important to keep your joints moving and to do some strengthening exercises. Moderate aerobic activity, such as walking, swimming and cycling, can help to treat and reduce pain caused by osteoarthritis.

Exercise tip

Try to regularly do exercise that strengthens your bones and muscles – any amount you do is better than none, but adults should aim to do strengthening activities at least two times a week. For example, do some resistance exercises with weights or some heavy gardening. Or why not try our exercises that you can do at home.

Reduce your risk of cancer

You’re less likely to develop certain cancers if you exercise. Aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. And remember, the more you do the better.

Your risk of breast and bowel cancer can be around 25% lower if you’re active, compared with people who aren’t. Also, women who are regularly active cut their risk of developing womb cancer by a third.

Some studies have shown that exercise may also reduce your risk of other cancers, such as lung and prostate cancer. But there isn’t enough evidence as yet to say this for certain.

Keeping active and exercising regularly will, on the whole, help you maintain a healthy body weight. This, in turn, reduces your risk of cancer because being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for developing cancer.

Exercise tip

Children today spend less time outside than previous generations. Active play not only helps keep a child healthy, it also promotes learning. If you have children, encourage them to be active from a young age. Starting healthy habits and routines when they’re young means they’re more likely to continue being active long into adulthood. This will help reduce their risk of developing cancer throughout life.

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Reduce your chance of type 2 diabetes

It’s estimated that around 3.5 million people in the UK have diabetes, and about nine in 10 of these people have type 2 diabetes. If you do some regular physical activity, it can help to prevent type 2 diabetes. This is because obesity is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Exercising regularly helps you maintain a healthy weight, and therefore reduces your risk of becoming overweight or obese, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

If you have type 2 diabetes, it’s really important that you exercise. Regular physical activity can help keep your blood glucose levels within your target range, control your body’s sensitivity to insulin and lower your blood pressure. It also reduces your chances of developing diabetes-related problems.

Exercise tip

If you have type 2 diabetes, keep a diary of your blood glucose levels and of when and for how long you’re physically active. You’ll be able to see how exercise affects your blood glucose, as well as track your progress. But make sure you talk to your GP before starting a new exercise routine.

Improve your mental health and wellbeing

Exercising regularly is good for your mind as well as your body. Exercise can help prevent and treat some mental health conditions. It’s thought that physical activity can reduce your risk of developing depression and dementia. It may also help to treat depression if you already have the condition.

Exercise can help relieve stress and anxiety, and improve your mood. This is because exercise has an effect on certain chemicals in your brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, which can affect your mood and thinking.

Joining a walking club or Zumba class is a great way to meet people and be sociable, which can do wonders for your wellbeing. Exercising with others is also motivational, so you’re more likely to stick at it.

You’re likely to feel happier, calmer, have an improved self-image and a better sense of wellbeing if you're physically active. Exercise can also help you get a better night’s sleep.

Physical health and mental health go hand in hand. If you have a long-term physical illness, you’re at risk of developing a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression. And vice versa – having a mental health problem puts you at a greatest risk of heart disease and respiratory diseases. So staying physically active helps to protect both your physical and mental health.

Exercise tip

Use the great outdoors to get active. Go for a brisk walk in nearby woodlands or a park or try your hand at a new outdoor sport. You will reap the physical benefits and being outside surrounded by nature and beautiful scenery can do wonders for your wellbeing and mental health.

Exercise helps to maintain a healthy weight

Doing regular exercise can help you to manage your weight. Physical activity burns up calories and helps to create a healthy energy balance. Exercise is essential for everyone for maintaining a healthy weight.

You’re less likely to be overweight or obese if you’re active. If you’re overweight or obese, regular exercise can help you lose excess weight and, therefore, reduce your risk of developing a range of health problems.

Be sure to maintain a healthy, balanced diet alongside exercise. This is not just important for your general health, it helps you recover after exercise. Cutting out certain food groups, such as carbohydrates, or eating too much of one food can cause more harm than good. There are many ‘fad diets  offering a ‘quick win’, but the key to long-term weight management (and, therefore, good health) is balance.

Exercise tip

From walking to the shops to cycling the children to school, there are many ways to incorporate activity into your day-to-day life. To get tips on how to make a start, see Exercise – getting started. And once you are more active, read our advice on how to keep motivated.

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  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, January 2019
    Expert reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next due for review January 2022