We all know that exercise is good for us. Getting our heart pumping helps us to maintain a healthy weight and keep fit - and it’s good for our cardiovascular system. But what about all the other benefits exercise can bring?
There are a huge number of very positive side effects that happen when we work out, but not everyone is aware of them. Let’s take a look at just 7 of the many lesser-known benefits of exercise.
- It can alleviate stress and anxiety
Many people know that exercise can play a part in boosting their mood. This is down to hormones called endorphins, which trigger a positive mood and make you feel good. For some people, this feeling can even be quite euphoric, known as the ‘runner’s high’. But did you know that this mood boost isn’t just a temporary effect? Exercise regularly and you can reduce your levels of stress and anxiety. You may notice that you have a more positive outlook on life, which can reduce your risk of developing depression.
Furthermore, exercise can potentially lower the levels of cortisol in your body. This is known as the stress hormone. Cortisol is important as part of the ‘fight or flight’ reflex to keep us safe, but too much of it can be harmful. When you first start your new exercise regime, your body will release cortisol. This is because it sees exercise as a form of stress. Over time and with regular exercise (although it’s important not to overdo it), the body becomes better at dealing with physical stress and so produces less cortisol.
- It lengthens your life expectancy
There is overwhelming scientific evidence highlighting the benefits of exercise, including studies that show that you have a 30 per cent lower risk of early death if you work out regularly. One piece of research found that even by committing to brisk walking for just 75 minutes a week (easily done if you commute to and from work on foot), you can expand your lifespan by as much as two years. If you can maintain an active lifestyle and a healthy weight, you could even enjoy up to seven years more than someone with sedentary habits.
- It can help to prevent cognitive decline
Scientists have found that there is a link between getting regular physical exercise and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia in later life. In fact, if you exercise regularly, you have a 30 per cent lower risk of developing dementia.
Unfortunately, exercise can’t cure or improve conditions involving cognitive decline or degeneration, but it can help to shore up your brain against these risks as you head into later life. This is because it can boost chemicals in the brain that prevent degeneration in the hippocampus - which plays a central part in how we learn and store memories - and other key parts of the brain.
- It can improve your memory and brain performance
Some studies have made a link between vigorous or high-intensity physical activity and certain proteins in the brain. The key protein in question is known as BDNF, which is believed to help with learning, higher thinking and decision making. Neuroscientists believe that BDNF improves the function of neurons, so they can fire more easily and your brain can grow. This all helps with learning.
If you complete a tough workout, it is thought that your levels of BDNF are boosted. In fact, do a 20-40 minute workout and you could increase BDNF levels by as much as 32 per cent. So this means you aren’t just working out your body when you get regular exercise, but your brain too. This can have all sorts of benefits, including helping you to learn new things more quickly.
And as we’ve already mentioned, physical exertion also helps your hippocampus to function - which could help to improve your memory.
- It can help you to relax
You may associate exercise with feeling pumped, but it can also work wonders when it comes to relaxing and switching off. There are a few reasons for this, starting with the time you carve out of your day to exercise. This is important ‘me time’, which can help you to clear your mind of everything but your workout, and burn off any frustrations from the day.
Even more importantly, exercise raises your core temperature. When this temperature drops, it signals to your body that it’s time to sleep. This is why it’s a smart idea to time your workouts carefully, doing some exercise around 5-6 hours before bed. Tiring out your muscles can also help you to get to sleep, and get quality sleep during the night.
- It helps you to fend off disease
The NHS has an enormous number of encouraging statistics about the benefits of exercise when it comes to fighting off disease. You may be focused on burning off calories while you’re on the treadmill, but you are also reducing your risk of colon cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, osteoarthritis and mental health problems while you run.
Some of these statistics are startling - for example, people who exercise regularly have an 83 per cent lower risk of osteoarthritis, a 50 per cent lower risk of type 2 diabetes and a 50 per cent lower risk of colon cancer. That’s surely motivation enough to get your jogging shoes on!
- It boosts your self-esteem
When starting a new exercise regime, many of us focus almost exclusively on goals such as weight loss. While achieving a goal of a healthy target weight can be great for your confidence, exercise can boost your self-esteem in other ways too.As well as looking good, you’ll start to feel stronger and fitter. Making the investment into your health and wellbeing by taking the time to exercise is a wonderfully satisfying feeling. You’ll have a sense of achievement, a better body image (one that’s based on fitness, not just weight) and an appreciation for all the marvellous things your body can do. Plus, all of those endorphins released after a workout are brilliant for giving you a positive mood and outlook on life - which includes your opinion of yourself.