The Health Benefits of Physical Activity and Exercise

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

Physical activity and exercise play a crucial role in maintaining overall health and well-being. Regular exercise not only helps improve physical fitness but also offers many benefits for both the body and the mind. Unfortunately, 3 out of 4 Americans are not getting the recommended amount of exercise they need to stay healthy.1

From strengthening muscles and bones to reducing the risk of chronic diseases, exercise is a powerhouse for better health. Regular physical activity helps improve:2,3

  • Heart health
  • Weight management
  • Blood sugar and insulin levels
  • Bone and muscle strength
  • Mental health
  • Brain health
  • Immune health
  • Energy levels
  • Longevity

Heart health

Cardiovascular exercise is movement that gets your heart pumping. It might include brisk walking, cycling, or swimming, and it can improve your heart health. It strengthens the heart muscle, improves blood circulation, and lowers blood pressure. Doing aerobic activities increases your levels of "good" cholesterol (HDL) and decreases your levels of "bad" cholesterol (LDL). This helps reduce the risk of:2,4

  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • Metabolic syndrome (A condition that involves a combination of health problems that can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes)
  • Stroke
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack

Weight management

Exercise is a key part of managing your weight. It helps you burn calories and maintain a healthy weight. Regular exercise also boosts your metabolism, which leads to increased calorie burn even when you are not exercising.3,4

Combining physical activity with a balanced diet promotes weight loss and can prevent obesity. It also helps reduce the risk of:3,4

  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes – A condition in which the body does not handle blood sugar as it should

If you are looking to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you take in. Typically, this is done by increasing the amount of exercise you do while reducing your calorie intake with a lean, healthy diet.4

But this does not mean you have to spend hours in the gym. Instead, try to add more movement throughout your day. This could mean taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Stand up from your desk more often and do a couple of squats or lunges. Or park farther away from a store entrance.3,4

If you are injured, living with a disability, or cannot exercise in the traditional sense, you can still move the body in beneficial ways. Consider water exercises, stretching, chair yoga, and strength training. These are all amazing for the body and more accessible when living with limited mobility. Remember, every little bit counts.5

All this movement, combined with a healthy diet, can help increase the number of calories you burn. The key to maintaining weight is to be consistent with these lifestyle habits.2,3

Blood sugar and insulin levels

Having blood sugar and insulin levels that are too high can lead to weight gain. It can also lead to type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, both of which are linked to being overweight or having obesity.6

By being more physically active, the cells in your body are able to process blood sugar and use insulin more efficiently. Insulin is a hormone that helps manage the amount of glucose in your blood (blood sugar).6

If you are prediabetic or have a family history of diabetes, it is very important to maintain a healthy weight. And if you already have type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome, it is still important to exercise regularly, as exercise can help manage your diabetes.6

Bone and muscle strength

Exercise improves and helps maintain muscle strength, flexibility, and coordination. This reduces your risk of getting injured. As you age, you lose muscle and bone mass naturally. Engaging your muscles over the span of your life helps you to stay healthy and strong.2-4

In order to retain and build strength in your muscles and bones, try adding strength-training exercises to your routine. Here are some to try:2-4

  • Body-weight exercises like lunges, planks, push-ups, and squats
  • Lifting weights
  • Resistance training

If you are just starting out with strength training, start slow. Play around with how many repetitions you can manage while still maintaining good form. If you are using weights, start out with a light weight. Over time, gradually increase the amount of weight and number of repetitions as you get stronger.3

Mental health

Physical activity has immense benefits for mental well-being. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, the "feel-good" hormones. These hormones help:2,3

  • Reduce stress
  • Improve mood
  • Boost self-esteem
  • Improve sleep quality

Because of its powerful effect on your mental health, regular exercise also can be an effective tool in managing and preventing anxiety and depression.2,3

Brain health

Exercise is good not only for your body but for your brain, too. Moving your body increases blood flow to the brain, promotes the growth of new neurons, and improves memory and concentration. In fact, some research studies have shown that consistent, moderate-intensity exercise has been linked to a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease.4,7

Immune health

Engaging in regular exercise helps strengthen the immune system, which helps it fight off germs that cause infections and diseases. There are many theories about why exercise improves the immune system. Examples include:8

  • Moderate-intensity exercise improves the circulation of antibodies and white blood cells.
  • Exercise may flush bacteria out of the lungs and airway.
  • The rise in body temperature when you exercise helps to kill bacteria in the body.
  • Exercise reduces the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol suppresses the immune system.

That said, it is important to strike a balance. Too much, or too intense, exercise can temporarily suppress the immune system. This is especially true if you are reducing calorie intake at the same time.2,3,8

Experts agree that you can still reap the benefits of exercise by doing just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least 5 days a week (150 minutes total per week). Good examples of moderate-intensity exercise are brisk walking and swimming.2,3,8

Energy levels

While it might not seem intuitive, being active can boost your energy levels. Regular exercise can help you feel healthier and more energized. It can help reduce feelings of fatigue. Regular exercise also:3,8

  • Improves cardiovascular fitness
  • Increases oxygen supply to your body’s tissues
  • Boosts endurance

Longevity

Studies show that getting regular physical activity is associated with a longer life. Exercising throughout your life combats chronic diseases like heart disease and even cancer. It promotes healthy aging and improves mood and overall quality of life.2,4

If you can’t do the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week, that is okay. Even 10 minutes a day is a step in the right direction. Remember, every little bit counts. And it is never too late to get started. So, lace up your shoes and get moving. Your body and mind will thank you for it.2-4

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