By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist
There is no question that exercise is essential for achieving and maintaining physical fitness, losing weight and keeping it off, and preventing and treating diseases like diabetes. What you may not know is that exercise can improve your health in ways that you may not be able to notice in the gym or on the scale.
These benefits have to do with the fact that exercise causes your muscles to produce chemical signals called myokines that influence other organs. For example, exercise can stimulate other cells to be more sensitive to insulin, which can help control blood glucose. Emerging research shows that these effects are widespread, leading to health benefits that go far beyond fitness and weight control. Here are a few surprising ways that exercise can improve your health.
Exercise can have a positive effect on your immune system. People who participate in moderate exercise on a daily basis have fewer and less severe colds and have up to 50% fewer sick days than those who aren’t regularly active. Research shows that exercise increases the activity of certain immune cells called helper T cells. This makes the immune system response to viruses, like the cold and flu, more robust. The strongest evidence is seen when the exercise is moderate in intensity and duration, such as a 30 to 60-minute walk or jog.
Inflammation is a key factor involved in the development of numerous chronic diseases including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and some cancers. Many people look to their diet for foods that have anti-inflammatory properties, but it turns out that exercise can have a significant impact on reducing inflammation, too. One of the myokines released by muscle during exercise is IL-6, a substance that has potent anti-inflammatory effects. Additionally, exercise alters the production of other substances that cause inflammation, providing broad protection against inflammatory damage.
You have probably heard that the bacteria that naturally inhabit your intestines are linked to your health. Put simply, some of these bacteria are harmful to your health, directly and indirectly causing health problems. Most obvious are GI issues, but these bacteria can also influence your hormones and metabolism in ways that lead to inflammation, obesity, and heart disease. Other bacteria are considered “good,” meaning they have positive health effects. Recent research shows that exercise can have a beneficial effect on gut bacteria which potentially can influence GI system health, inflammation, and weight control.
Research shows that exercise has far-reaching outcomes on the structure and function of the brain, derived from increased brain blood flow and the production of BDNF, an important growth factor that promotes brain growth and repair. The benefits include improved learning and memory, better attention and ability to ignore distractions, enhanced stress management, and improved mood.
The claim that “you can’t outrun a bad diet” is often used to support the notion that what you eat is more important than what you do for activity. While diet is critical to good health, this claim simply isn’t true. Exercise has powerful effects that can reduce the negative impact of your diet. Every time you exercise, the number of receptors that remove glucose from your blood increases to regulate blood glucose, particularly relevant to diabetes. Exercise also causes an increased uptake of fats from the blood, lowering blood lipid levels. This is especially important after eating a high fat meal which, together with other factors, can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Exercise really can prevent some of the damage that occurs when you eat too much fat, sugar, or carbohydrates in general!
Exercise has long been associated with improved sleep. This is thought to be due to the fact that exercise depletes energy stores and elevates body temperature and sleep restores energy, promotes tissue repair, and regulates body temperature. Exercise is a healthy, safe, inexpensive, and simple means of improving sleep, potentially replacing sleeping pills. Research also shows that aerobic exercise can improve sleep quality, mood, and feelings of vitality in people with chronic insomnia.
Like improved fitness and weight control, these other benefits depend on the type, intensity, and duration of the exercise you do. At a minimum, making time to be active every day is essential, even if it is a 30-minute walk. You should plan for longer exercise sessions on some days, shorter, more intense workouts on others, and strength training at least two days per week. This will meet goals for fitness and weight control as well as achieving other hidden exercise benefits that will promote better overall health.
Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., is an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.