When we hit the gym, our goals are often short-term. We’re there to lose a few pounds, work on our biceps for T-shirt season or sweat just enough to earn that slice of cheesecake. But the true benefits of exercise build over much longer periods. Regular exercise across months and years not only helps us look and feel better, but also delivers powerful health benefits for our minds, bones, joints, sleep patterns and more.
That’s because moving our bodies doesn’t just build muscle or burn fat. Our bodies were designed to move. You might say it’s in our bones. Keeping up with a regular pattern of activity helps regulate a plethora of seemingly unrelated processes. Think about it this way: If a doctor had a pill that would prevent or treat heart disease, depression, sleep problems and diabetes all at the same time, you’d jump at the chance to take it. But that’s exactly what studies show exercise can do for us.
Let’s take a look at the science to reveal some of the lesser-known, but arguably more important, benefits that regular exercise can have for our bodies. Along the way, we’ll show you what exercise can and can’t do for you based on the best available science.
Exercise And Your Body
For decades, research has shown that exercise is good for our hearts and lungs. People who are physically active have stronger cardiovascular systems and lower rates of heart disease than those who don’t (Nystoriak et al,. 2018). More specifically, research shows that exercise helps improve circulation while lowering blood pressure and triglyceride levels, two contributors to cardiovascular disease (Thompson et al., 2001).
Scientists have also shown that physical activity helps blood sugar regulation in people with diabetes, and it lets our bodies use insulin more effectively (Bird and Hawley, 2017). While exercise alone isn’t a cure for diabetes, it can help manage symptoms and stave off some serious long-term effects of the disease.
The story is a little more complicated when it comes to weight. Historically, doctors have often linked exercise to weight loss, but increasingly, many studies don’t agree (Foright et al., 2018). Though the link between the two may seem to be clear-cut, there are a few factors that complicate the issue.
Obviously, moving our bodies uses more energy. The more active you are, the more calories your body burns. And studies confirm that exercise raises our resting metabolic rates, which leads to greater energy consumption (Gim and Chio, 2016). But to date, randomized controlled trials, the gold standard of medical science, have yet to show a clear link between more exercise and weight loss.
A number of factors could be at play, scientists say. People may eat more to compensate for the additional activity, cancelling out exercise’s potential slimming effects. In addition, people likely respond to exercise differently — so while your friend sheds pounds after a few Spin classes, the same may not go for you.
And it’s quite possible to increase muscle mass while losing fat mass – a healthful change that may not register on the bathroom scale, or may even result in a higher weight. As pioneering American exercise advocate Jack LaLanne remarked, “Most scales lie.”
Still, other studies have found that exercise helps maintain weight loss (Petridou et al., 2019). That means that once you’ve reaped the benefits of a few months of dieting, exercise might be a key factor in holding on to those gains.
But in recent years, scientists have also inched closer to the idea that diet is actually more important than exercise for weight loss, and more importantly, fat loss. Large-scale studies have found that the surest way to shed pounds is to simply eat healthy foods in proper proportions (Schwingshackl et al., 2014).
Weight loss uncertainty aside, there are plenty of benefits for your body from working out. People who move their bodies regularly are more likely to have strong bones, for example. That’s extra important as age and fragile bones start to pose a real health risk if we fall. But that doesn’t mean you should wait until you’ve retired to start working on skeletal health: One study looking at adolescents who exercised found that they hit peak bone density early in life, helping to stave off osteoporosis later on (Zulfarina et al., 2016). And a review study found older athletes also had higher bone densities than those who were sedentary, more evidence that lifelong physical activity keeps bones strong (Suomin, 1993).
A regular workout routine during the day might also help you at night. Research shows that we sleep longer and more efficiently after we exercise, and fall asleep quicker, too (Kredlow et al., 2015). And regular exercise is also linked to higher sleep quality over the long term. Sleep in turn affects a range of other areas of health, including mental and cardiovascular health (Alvarez and Ayas, 2004).
What Exercise Does for the Brain
Even though you may work out for your body, the positive effects extend to your mind, too. Studies show that bouts of exercise can boost our mood, at least for a little while. The famous “runner’s high” from aerobic exercise might be the best example, but any kind of physical activity could help brighten your day (Liao et al., 2015).
(Read more: Muscle Work Can Help Boost Brain Health and Mood)
Exercise helps to wipe away stress, too. One study showed that exercise moderates physiological responses to stress, like elevated blood pressure and adrenaline levels. Researchers attribute that finding to the ways a workout affects our sympathetic nervous system, which controls our body’s unconscious functions. (Brownley et al., 2003). So, a quick jog before a big meeting might not be such a bad idea after all.
Other studies have linked exercise with small but significant increases in thinking skills. When tested shortly after exerting themselves, people perform reliably better on a range of cognitive tasks like information processing, reaction time, attention and more (Change et al., 2012). Brain studies tentatively suggest exercise may affect our prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain responsible for higher-level functions like planning, decision-making and short-term memory.
Some studies also suggest exercise might help improve memory, though the evidence for this isn’t solid yet. One study, for example, found that participants had an easier time recalling a paragraph if they read it immediately after exercising (Labban and Etnier, 2011). Other research in mice suggests that exercise might stimulate neurogenesis — the creation of new brain cells — in the hippocampus, a critical brain region for memory (Fabel et al., 2009).
As we age, exercise could also play an even more critical role in protecting our brains. Scientists find that older adults who exercise regularly are less susceptible to age-related cognitive declines. The reasons for this aren’t fully understood, but one study did find lower levels of an inflammatory marker called C-reactive protein in adults that exercised (Muscari et al., 2009). That protein has been linked to memory problems in other studies.
(Read more: Robust Workouts Guard Brains & Health at Any Age)
So what kind of exercise should you do to give your body a boost? Broadly speaking, the best exercise program is the one that you’ll stick with. Find something physical you like, whether it’s going for a walk, pumping iron or playing volleyball, and aim for three or four sessions a week. It’s a surefire way to better yourself, both inside and out.