For as long as you can remember, you've been hearing about the benefits of exercise: Weight control, chronic disease management, stronger muscles and bones, to name a few. But the list of exercise benefits just keeps getting longer. If you could package it in a pill, you might have a multi-million dollar product!
Maybe these less touted benefits will offer the motivation you need to make exercise a regular part of your daily routine.
Improve your immune system. Seem like you catch every bug in the book? Maybe exercise can help. Researchers are finding that as little as 30- to 45-minute brisk walks five times a week can greatly boost your immune system. It does this by increasing the levels of natural killer cells that fight off infections such as colds or the flu(1,2).
Influence aging. Early research indicates that exercise may partly reverse the aging process caused by stress. How do we know this? Shorter telomeres are a sign of aging, and researchers have found that exercise lengthens them. Telomere is a fancy name for the strands of DNA at the tips of chromosomes(3).
Enhance your mood. You may already know that exercise can improve self-confidence, distract you from negative thoughts, and help you feel fitter. Increasing body temperature may have a calming effect. Exercise also releases brain chemicals that may relieve tension and ease depression and anxiety. Some studies have even shown that exercise may be as effective as an antidepressant(4,5).
Boost your brain. Exercise increases growth factors in the brain, which help the brain make new brain cells and new connections between them. This may enhance memory, attention, and concentration, helping with learning.6 Some studies have even begun to show a link between exercise and grades on math and reading tests(7). But the benefits aren't limited to kids in school. Exercise may also greatly reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, a form of dementia(8).
Sleep better. A recent poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation uncovered some interesting connections to exercise. Those who exercised—no matter what time of day—reported better sleep than those who didn't, even when they slept the same length of time. Sedentary people were also about twice as likely to be sleepy during the day and were more likely to have sleep apnea, a disorder that interrupts breathing while you're asleep(9).
So how much do you need to reap benefits like these? Experts recommend getting at least two hours and 30 minutes each week of moderately intense aerobic activity or one hour and 15 minutes weekly of vigorous aerobic exercise(10). It's best to combine this with muscle strengthening two times a week(10). But remember: short stretches of physical activity throughout the day can bring many of the same advantages as a structured gym workout(11).
If you're not sure where to begin, I may be able to help. Before you start a new routine, it's also best to have a talk with your doc.
1. Nieman DC, et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005 Jan;37(1):57–62. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15632669 Accessed March 23, 2013.
2. Nieman DC, et al. Br J Sports Med. 2011 Sep;45(12):987–992. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21041243 Accessed March 23, 2013.
3. Puterman E, et al. PLoS ONE. 2010. 5(5): e10837. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010837. Available at:http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0010837 Accessed March 23, 2013
4. MayoClinic: "Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms." Available at:http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression-and-exercise/MH00043 Accessed March 23, 2013.
5. Harvard Health Publications: "Exercise and Depression." Available at: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Exercise-and-Depression-report-excerpt.htm Accessed March 23, 2013.
6. HealthDay: "Short-Term Exercise Might Boost Young People's Self-Control." Available at:http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_134655.html Accessed March 21, 2013.
7. HealthDay: "When Kids Exercise More, Their Grades Might Rise Too." Available at:http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_134464.html Accessed March 21, 2013.
8. Head D, et al. Arch Neurol. 2012;69(5): 636–643. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583203/. Accessed March 23, 2013.
9. HealthDay: "Exercise Leads to Better Sleep: Pool." Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_134557.html Accessed March 21, 2013.
10. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services: "2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Summary." Available at: http://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/summary.aspx Accessed March 23, 2013.
11. HealthDay: "Everyday Activities May Have Same Health Benefits as Going to Gym." Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_133890.html Accessed March 21, 2013.