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The Benefits of Physical Activity

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

man running

People often think of exercise strictly as a method of weight loss. Yes, exercise does burn calories. It is so much more than that! The things that exercise does for your body are amazing, even if no weight loss occurs.

Recently, The US Department of Health and Human Services came out with the second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. When the first edition came out in 2008, there was a short list of benefits of physical activity. Since then, a lot of research has come out showing many different ways that being active can benefit our health. As a result, this newer edition has been greatly expanded. Let’s dive into their list:

Lowers Mortality Risk

Physical activity lowers mortality risk. This is a fancy and less scary way of saying the more you move, the less likely you are to die anytime soon. You don’t have to run marathons to reap this benefit either. People who are physically active 150 minutes a week (say 30 minutes of exercise, 5 times a week), are 33% less likely to die from any cause compared to people who are sedentary.

Helps with Arthritis

I often hear from people that they don’t exercise because of their arthritis. However, exercise can actually improve arthritis! It can help with pain, physical function and quality of life for those living with arthritis. While very high levels of activity have the potential to injure joints (think professional athletes), up to 10,000 steps per day does not seem to make the progression of osteoarthritis worse. Get those joints moving!

Helps Improve Blood Pressure

Regular physical activity decreases the risk of developing high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. For people that already have hypertension, exercise can help lower both the top and bottom blood pressure numbers (systolic and diastolic).

Improves Cognition and Reduces the Risk of Dementia

Need some brain power? Moderate and vigorous exercise can help! Exercise has been shown to improve performance on academic tests as well as improving processing speed and memory. This is true for children, adults and older adults. It can also decrease the risk of dementia including Alzheimer’s.

Helps Prevent and Manage Type 2 Diabetes

Want to lower your blood sugars? Get moving! Exercise not only decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes, but it can help manage diabetes for people that already have it. Exercise can decrease HbA1C, blood pressure, weight and cholesterol as well as the risk of death from heart disease. Think of exercise like a diabetes medication - it has the potential to lower your blood sugars as much as some drugs can, but it’s free and can even be FUN!

Helps Improve Cholesterol

Has your doctor said your cholesterol needs some help? Exercise can help lower triglycerides and raise HDL levels, or the “good” cholesterol. This is helpful, as for some people triglycerides and HDL cholesterol can be tricky to manage, as statins have a limited effect on them.

Lowers the Risk of Certain Cancers

Physical activity can decrease the risk of specific cancers including bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung, and stomach. For cancer survivors, physical activity can improve quality of life and the risk of dying from the disease.

Reduces Anxiety and Risk of Depression

Getting some movement in can help decrease short-term anxiety. Stressed about an upcoming event? Take a walk! Furthermore, regular activity can help decrease more long-term anxiety, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. It not only decreases the risk of depression, but can also improve symptoms for people that already have it.

Improves Sleep

Always tired? Try Zumba, or any other type of exercise for that matter. Exercise has been shown to increase sleep efficiency and quality while decreasing daytime sleepiness and the need for sleep aids. Getting more activity can decrease the time it takes to actually fall asleep when in bed as well. According to the research, it doesn’t matter what time of day you exercise to improve your sleep.

Helps with Weight Management

Everyone already knows this one, but yes, exercise can help you lose weight. Some people need to exercise more than others to maintain a healthy weight, but it’s definitely part of the balance equation for everyone. Losing weight through diet AND exercise helps maintain muscle mass much better when compared to losing weight through diet alone.

Physical activity seems to be key in keeping the weight off that you already lost. This is huge as many people can successfully lose weight, but seem to struggle to keep it off. Significantly more exercise than general recommendations, more like 300 minutes a week, seems to help people keep the lost weight off the best.

Improves Bone Health

Want to prevent osteoporosis? Exercise! Start moving and don’t stop, as physical activity can help bones of all ages. For children, physical activity is important for bone development. It’s been shown in kids ages 3-17 that are physical active have better bone mass, strength and structure. For older adults, moderate or vigorous exercise of just 90 minutes a week could have a positive effect on bone health.

Improves Muscle Mass

I guess it’s pretty obvious that if you’re pumping iron, your muscles are going to grow! General recommendations suggest at least two days a week or strength training. For older adults, even just doing aerobic activity may help slow the muscle loss that comes with aging. There’s no wrong way to exercise!

Lowers Risk of Falls for Older Adults

Physically active people have a lower risk of falls and hip fractures compared to more sedentary people. As many people unfortunately know, hip fractures are serious health conditions and can be quite life changing for older adults. Prevention is key - you’re never too old to exercise!

Lowers the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Heart attacks and strokes are often cited as the top fears according to the people I see in my office. Physical activity lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as the death from cardiovascular disease. This is a pretty big deal considering heart disease and stroke are the leading killers in the US. Get that heart pumping!

Improves Physical Function

Middle aged and older adults who are generally physically active are more likely to be able to do everyday things like grocery shopping and playing with grandchildren. A body in motion stays in motion, right? Keep active so you can continue to do the things you enjoy.

Improves Quality of Life

Adults that are physically active are more likely to report having a better quality of life. This makes sense seeing all the other benefits exercise can provide!

For the full 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines click here



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