7 Surprising Benefits of Exercise

Plank Exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • Exercise boosts brain health and has been linked to lower rates of depression and Alzheimer’s disease along with improved memory
  • Exercise boosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress
  • Exercise may help you recover from chronic health conditions, including osteoarthritis, stroke and cancer

By Dr. Mercola

Close to 80 percent of U.S. adults do not get enough exercise, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1 The survey found that only about 20 percent of Americans are getting the recommended amount, which is:

  • At least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity
  • Strength-training activities twice a week

This recommendation comes from U.S. public health agencies and is a reasonable amount of exercise, but some people, particularly those who use high-intensity interval training (HIIT), can likely get benefits from even less.

You might be surprised to learn of the significant health benefits you can glean from short amounts of physical activity.

The most important point is to stay active as much as possible. Avoid sitting for long periods (aim to sit for less than three hours a day) and spend the rest of your time walking, standing and engaging in other activities.

Some of that time should be devoted to short bursts of vigorous activity that really get your heart rate going, along with activities that strengthen your muscles and promote flexibility and balance. Virtually everyone can benefit from exercise — young and old, fit and unfit alike.

7 Incredible Benefits of Exercise

It can seem difficult to find time for exercise, but when you realize the benefits — they're far better than any pill could provide — the question becomes, how can you afford not to? Here's a sampling of exercise benefits to give you some motivation to get moving.

1. Boost Your Brain Health

Many people focus on the cardiovascular and weight loss benefits of exercise, but there's far more.

In a study of adults aged 60 to 80, those who were the most physically active had better brain oxygenation and better patterns of brain activity, particularly in the hippocampus and in connecting different brain regions together.

Such patterns are associated with improved cognitive function.2 What is perhaps most intriguing about the findings is they occurred among older adults who were physically active but not athletes.

The study participants did not exercise formally but rather got their activity in via walking, gardening and simply moving about each day — and those who moved the most had significant brain advantages compared to their more sedentary peers.

Not to mention, exercise has been linked to lower rates of depression and Alzheimer's disease along with improved memory.

One reason why exercise is so good for your brain may be because it stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5, which in turn triggers the production of BDNF.

In your brain BDNF not only preserves existing brain cells,3 it also activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons and effectively makes your brain grow larger.

2. Feel Happier

Happiness is what life's all about, right? Exercise might help you achieve this ultimate goal.

A study by Princeton University researchers, for instance, revealed that exercising creates new, excitable neurons along with new neurons designed to release the GABA neurotransmitter, which inhibits excessive neuronal firing, helping to induce a natural state of calm.4

Anandamide (AEA) levels are also known to increase during and following exercise. AEA may also be involved in increasing BDNF and is a neurotransmitter and endocannabinoid produced in your brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression.

It's a derivative of the Sanskrit word "bliss," and a deficiency is associated with increased anxiety and stress.5 Exercise also boosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress.

3. Slow Down Aging

Exercise can make you look and feel younger in a number of ways. It can help you to be more flexible, sleep better and lower your risk of chronic disease.

Exercise also induces changes in mitochondrial enzyme content and activity, which can increase your cellular energy production, and triggers mitochondrial biogenesis (the process by which new mitochondria are formed in your cells).6

This reverses significant age-associated declines in mitochondrial mass and, in effect, may help "stop aging in its tracks."

4. Better Skin

Exercise increases circulation and blood flow to your skin, which means its receiving a fresh dose of oxygen and nutrients. This promotes overall skin health while helping to heal wounds.

To improve your skin, you'll want to focus on resistance training, where you're using your own bodyweight to challenge your muscles. Lunges, pushups and planks are examples of resistance exercises.

By increasing lean muscle mass that sits just under the surface of your skin, it can make your skin appear more taught and lifted. Excessive cardio training is not recommended if skin toning is your goal.

This is because the stress placed on your body when you're running long distances produces excessive amounts of cortisol, a stress hormone responsible for inflammation. This can take a heavy toll on your skin, as cortisol tends to break down collagen, resulting in wrinkling and sagging.

5. You Can Get Fit in Minutes

It doesn't take much exercise to reap the benefits, provided you're willing to work hard. Just 12 minutes a week, or four minutes a day for three days was all it took to improve fitness levels in overweight inactive middle-aged men.

For the study, one group of men followed a protocol known as 4x4 training, completing four intervals of four minutes of high-intensity exercise (16 minutes a day, the "16-minute group") three times a week for 10 weeks.

The second group exercised three times a week using four-minute high-intensity sessions, for a total of just 12 minutes of exercise a week, or just four minutes a day (the "four-minute group").7 Both groups showed marked improvements. The four-minute group had a 10 percent increase in VO2 max (an indicator of cardiovascular health) compared to a 13 percent increase in the 16-minute group.

The four-minute exercisers also experienced decreases in their blood pressure levels at amounts even greater than the 16-minute group. Other research has shown participants were able to improve their insulin sensitivity an average of 24 percent with as little as three minutes of HIIT per week.8 Further, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the benefits of HIIT include:9

  • Significantly increased aerobic and anaerobic fitness
  • Decreased fasting insulin and increased insulin sensitivity
  • Reduced abdominal and subcutaneous (just under the skin) fat

6. Recover Faster From Chronic Disease

It used to be suggested that people who are ill should not exercise, but the opposite is often true. Among cancer patients, for instance, exercise should typically be a crucial part of treatment that may speed successful recuperation and lower your risk of cancer recurrence.

Exercise also benefits people with joint pain, including osteoarthritis, and may be a key treatment for people suffering from depression or anxiety.

It's also been found to support recovery from stroke. In the case of chronic conditions, exercise helping is far more often the rule than it is the exception. Time reported on what doctors may find if they would only prescribe exercise more often in lieu of medication:10

"Dr. Robert Sallis, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Center in California, has prescribed exercise to his patients since the early 1990s in hopes of doling out less medication. 'It really worked amazingly, particularly in my very sickest patients,' he says.

'If I could get them to do it on a regular basis — even just walking, anything that got their heart rate up a bit — I would see dramatic improvements in their chronic disease, not to mention all of these other things like depression, anxiety, mood and energy levels.'"

7. Shrink Your Fat Cells

One of the benefits of consistent HIIT is that your body starts to use fat as its preferred source of fuel. For instance, research published in the journal Cell Metabolism showed that when healthy but inactive people exercise intensely but briefly, it produced an immediate change in their DNA — some of which specifically promotes fat burning.11

It turns out that intense exercise causes structural and chemical alterations to the DNA molecules within your muscles, and this contraction-induced gene activation leads to the genetic reprogramming of muscle for strength. Other genes affected by intense exercise are genes involved in fat metabolism.

Specifically, the study suggested that when you do high-intensity exercises, your body nearly immediately experiences genetic activation that increases the production of fat-busting proteins.

Get Ready to Exercise

Research shows that while many people started an exercise program to lose weight and improve their appearance, they continued to exercise because of the benefits to their well-being.12

Once people recognized this connection to their emotional health, they continued to work out because it made them feel good mentally, and this is a benefit that occurs immediately after exercise (as well as, for some, during). As you continue, you'll reap increasing rewards that will permeate virtually every aspect of your physical, mental and emotional health.

So get moving and keepmoving for best results. To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend a comprehensive program that includes high-intensity interval exercise, strength training (especially super slow workouts), stretching and core work, along with walking about 10,000 steps a day.