Exercise is good for both your body and mind. It can help you improve your overall health and remain active throughout your entire life. Exercise can even help prevent some serious diseases like diabetes and cancer.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of exercise to get the amazing benefits. So how much exercise do you need? Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days. But if that’s not possible, some exercise is better than none.

Read on to learn about the head-to-toe and inside-and-out benefits of exercise – some of which are rather surprising.

Physical benefits of exercise

You probably know that exercise is good for your heart and lungs. But it also helps your bones, brain, immune system and more. Exercise increases the flow of blood and, as a result, each part of your body gets more oxygen and nutrients. This helps your body work better, get stronger and fight off disease.

Exercise improves your strength

Muscles are behind every movement – walking, talking, blinking, bending, turning, picking up, setting down and much more. Muscles also help pump blood through your body and help you breathe. Any sort of exercise builds muscles – and when your muscles are strong, your body works more smoothly and efficiently.

Exercise helps with balance

As you age, you’re more likely to have balance problems that cause you to feel unsteady or dizzy and sometimes fall. Balance exercises can improve your posture and coordination, keeping you steadier on your feet.

Exercise increases flexibility

Maybe you don’t see the point of being able to touch your toes. But it’s still a great idea to work on increasing your flexibility. Exercising reduces stiffness in your body and increases your range of motion. This makes it easier for you to perform normal activities (that jar of peanut butter isn’t going to get itself off that high shelf) while reducing your chance of being injured.

Exercise boosts energy levels

Low energy levels is one of the risks of a sedentary lifestyle. If you’re getting regular workouts, you will likely feel energized throughout the day. Exercise improves oxygen circulation, allowing your body to use energy more efficiently. And when your body works better, it’s easier to have the energy you need to mark off everything on your to-do list.

Exercise helps manage pain

When experiencing body pain, it’s common to reach for ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol) or naproxen sodium (Aleve). But maybe you should also be reaching for a yoga mat and hand weights.

While you may think that moving your sore body will make pain worse instead of better, science tells us that’s usually not the case. Exercises that improve your strength and flexibility can lessen everyday aches and pains. Exercise can also reduce menstrual cramps, and even help treat chronic pain without opioids or other pills.

If you have so much pain that you can’t even think about exercising, make an appointment with your primary care doctor or a physical therapist. They’ll be able provide some suggestions to move your body in a way that helps instead of hurts.

Exercise helps you sleep better

Do you struggle with getting a good night’s sleep? Well, here’s one of the best tips for better sleep: get regular exercise.

Exercise helps you fall asleep more quickly, so you don’t waste precious time tossing and turning. You’re also likely to spend more time in deep sleep, helping your body and brain recover from the day, and prepare for the day to come.

What’s more, you won’t have to wait long for better sleep. If you get 30 minutes of moderate exercise during the day, you’ll probably sleep better that very night. But while exercise can help you sleep, it’s not necessarily something you should do right before bed. Some people find it’s hard to sleep after a workout. If that’s you, try not to exercise within two hours of bedtime.

Exercise helps with weight control

Getting exercise helps balance the calories you consume with the calories your body burns. Exercising regularly helps your body burn more calories, even when you’re at rest.

Mental benefits of exercise

Perhaps you’re not all that surprised about the physical benefits of exercise. After all, it makes sense that physical movements come with physical rewards. But exercising also has surprising benefits to mental health, clarity and happiness.

Why is that? Well, all that blood following through your body also gets to your brain – physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals, helping your brain work better.

Exercise improves your mood

Here’s why exercise makes you happy: When you’re physically active, your body produces more endorphins which are “feel-good” chemicals that help you deal with pain or stress.

The great new is that you don’t need to put in hours on the treadmill to experience the feel-good benefits of exercise – studies show you can get exercising endorphins with just 10 minutes of moderate exercise.

Exercise helps you deal with negative emotions

The emotional benefits of exercise also include emotional resilience – the ability to keep your emotions under control when things get tough. While you’ll still have negative experiences, they may not cause you as much stress and you’ll be able to respond in a healthier way.

Exercise improves mental clarity, memory and learning

Exercising also stimulates the production of hormones and neurotransmitters related to memory and learning. These chemicals, which include encephalins and serotonin, help with concentration and mental processing in both children and adults.

Exercise strengthens social connections

Exercising can be a social activity that helps you form strong connections with others. For example, you may go walking with coworkers or join a cycling club. But exercise can also make you a more reliable team player. In a study that included 11,000 HealthPartners employees, strength training led to better job performance.

Exercise provides stress relief

Stress is bad for your heart and the rest of your body. The good news is that exercise gives your body strength against the physical and emotional symptoms of stress.

Exercise improves the effectiveness of your heart and lungs, so your body is better able to react to symptoms like rapid heart rate and breathing problems. Plus, working out floods your body with endorphins to help with emotional stress.

Exercise improves confidence

Taking steps to improve your health is always a confidence booster. And if you’re working out regularly, you’ll likely feel stronger, smarter, happier and ready to take on the world.

Regular exercise often leads to an improved body image since you know you’re doing your best – this is true even if the numbers on the scale stubbornly refuse to budge. You may also gain the confidence to take additional steps toward better health.

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Preventing or managing chronic disease with exercise

If the benefits of exercise were limited to those listed above, exercise would still be one of the absolute best things you could do for your mental and physical well-being.

But wait, there’s more – regular exercise can lower your chance of getting a chronic disease. And if you get one, exercise can help you manage your symptoms so your condition doesn’t get worse.

Obesity and exercise

Being overweight affects your overall health and is a risk factor for many serious medical conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancers.

Unfortunately, it’s way too easy to gain weight as you age. This is because your metabolism, or how your body breaks down food and sugars for energy, slows as you get older. As a result, your body needs less energy to complete activities.

Preventing obesity

Because exercise helps to burn off the calories you consume, it plays an important role in reaching and keeping a healthy weight during your life. Exercise is also a key part of addressing the problem of childhood obesity.

However, it’s important to remember that even if you are doing all the right things – such as eating a heart-healthy diet and getting regular exercise – weight loss can be hard. If you’d like help losing a few pounds, make talking to your doctor part of your weight-loss program.

Heart disease and exercise

When you think about the health benefits of exercise, the first thing that probably comes to mind is preventing heart attacks and heart disease. There’s a reason for that. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States – responsible for about 1 in 4 deaths.

Preventing heart disease

Exercise makes your heart stronger. Since your heart is a muscle, the more you work it, the bigger and stronger it gets. Heart-healthy workouts are a proven way to lower your risk factors for heart disease. In particular, exercise:

  • Reduces high blood pressure– If you’re wondering how to lower your high blood pressure numbers without medication, the answer could be moving your body more. Regular exercise lowers blood pressure by up to 5-8 mm Hg. But improvements will go away if you stop exercising, so it’s important to stick with it.
  • Improves “good” cholesterol– Exercise can help you manage cholesterol levels by raising your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. HDL is referred to as the “good” cholesterol because it helps your body process the other cholesterol in your blood stream. High levels of HDL cholesterol can lower your risk for heart disease.

Managing heart disease

Exercise is also important if you already have heart disease. Regular workouts can strengthen your heart and prevent heart disease from getting worse. For example, if you have clogged arteries, exercise can reverse some of the damage and help with heart attack prevention.

Diabetes and exercise

Diabetes is a condition where the level of glucose (a form of sugar) in your blood gets too high because you don’t have enough insulin in your body or it’s not working properly. Insulin is a hormone that moves glucose to your cells that they can use for energy.

Preventing diabetes

Exercise can help you avoid getting type 2 diabetes. Even if you already have prediabetes, getting regular physical activity (and losing a small amount of weight, if you’re overweight) is often enough to avoid getting type 2 diabetes.

Managing diabetes

If you have diabetes, being active increases insulin sensitivity and improves your body’s ability to use available insulin to process blood sugar for energy. Regular exercise can also help you control glucose levels over the long term – research shows that exercise lowers hemoglobin A1c, which is the average levels of blood sugar over three months.

Better control of your diabetes can pay off in a big way. People who have diabetes and get regular exercise have a much lower chance of developing other serious medical conditions such as heart disease and nerve damage.

Mental health and exercise

Mental health disorders are very common and can affect mood, thinking and behaviors. Each year about one in five people in the United States face mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety.

When negative feelings don’t go away or affect your daily life, it’s time to act – and it turns out that exercise may be part of the solution.

Managing mental health challenges

There’s an undeniable link between physical fitness and mental health. As mentioned earlier, the feel-good endorphins of exercise can boost your mood, increase focus and make your brain work better. But exercise also improves mental health in children and adults by building self-esteem and life satisfaction, while reducing negative thoughts.

Many studies show that regular exercise can help manage mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Structured exercise programs are also helpful for people with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia.

Of course, exercise isn’t a replacement for therapy – sometimes you need someone to help you work through problems. Talk to your primary care doctor or look into mental health services if you or your child have changes in mood that last for more than a couple of days.

Osteoarthritis and exercise

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that happens when the protective cartilage at the ends of your bones wears down. Since there’s less cushioning between your joints, people with osteoarthritis can experience symptoms such as pain, stiffness, tenderness, swelling and loss of flexibility.

Preventing osteoarthritis

You may have heard that osteoarthritis is a normal part of aging. But the truth is that there are things you can do to lower the chance of getting this condition – exercise is one of them. Researchers have found that if you have weak front thigh muscles, you have a higher chance of knee osteoarthritis. So, you may be able to prevent painful knee osteoarthritis by building your leg strength.

Exercise also plays an important role in preventing osteoarthrosis of the lower back and hips. If you’re obese, you’re 4 to 5 times more likely to have osteoarthritis, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. And, as you know, exercise is one of the best ways to lose weight.

Managing osteoarthritis symptoms

If you have osteoarthritis, you may think that exercising will make your symptoms worse, but the opposite is true – exercise is actually the most effective, non-drug treatment for managing pain, improving joint movement and reducing stiffness.

The reason exercise works for people with osteoarthritis is that it builds up the muscle near the joints which can help reduce the stress on your joints when you use them.

The bottom line is that if you want to maintain good bone health as you age, it’s important to find time for regular exercise.

Cancer and exercise

It may be hard to believe but regular exercise can reduce your chance of getting certain cancers. And if you’re diagnosed with cancer, exercise can help you manage your symptoms and live longer.

Preventing cancer

Results from an American Cancer Society study show that exercise helps prevent some cancers. What’s more, you can lower your risk with just 2.5 – 5 hours of moderate exercise (or 1.25 – 2.5 hours of vigorous exercise) each week. That’s only about 20 – 40 minutes of moderate exercise each day.

Type of cancer 2.5 hours moderate exercise each week (or 1.25 vigorous exercise) 5 hours moderate exercise each week (or 2.5 vigorous exercise)
Colon cancer in men 8% lower 14% lower
Breast cancer in women 6% lower 10% lower
Endometrial cancer 10% lower 18% lower
Multiple myeloma 14% lower 19% lower
Liver cancer 18% lower 27% lower
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma 11% lower 18% lower

Of course, even if you’re a consistent exerciser, it’s still important to keep up preventive care such as mammograms and colon cancer screenings.

Managing cancer symptoms

While you may not be able to prevent cancer, you can change how much it affects your life. And all the positive benefits of exercise – changes in mood, energy and pain control – can make you feel good about doing something positive for your health.

Many people believe that you need to take it easy if you have cancer, but that’s not always the case. Studies show that exercise makes living with cancer easier and can make treatment work better. In many cases, exercise can reduce side effects of cancer (or cancer medication).

Dementia and exercise

Dementia is a very common medical condition that affects memory and thinking, and can make it difficult to complete daily activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.

Preventing dementia

Although there is no way to prevent dementia, numerous studies suggest that getting regular exercise can reduce risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and mental decline. We’re still trying to understand how better cardiovascular health supports cognitive performance, but research supported by the National Institute of Health suggests that it may be because exercising activates neuroprotective genes in the part of your brain responsible for memory formation.

Managing dementia symptoms

Exercise won’t cure dementia, but it can help improve mood, memory and attention – making symptoms less bothersome and more manageable. People with dementia usually see some immediate improvements in their symptoms with just a little bit of exercise. And regular exercise can have a long-term effect in brain processing and memory in people with dementia.

Parkinson’s disease and exercise

Parkinson’s disease is a condition that affects your brain and changes how you move. It’s progressive, meaning that it continues to get worse over time. Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include body tremors, muscle stiffness, slower movements and balance issues.

Preventing Parkinson’s disease

At this point, there’s nothing that’s proven to prevent Parkinson’s disease. However, studies of large populations show that people who regularly get moderate to vigorous exercise are less likely to get Parkinson’s.

Managing Parkinson’s disease

If you have Parkinson’s disease, exercising can give you the balance, mobility and strength you need for your daily life. By doing exercises for Parkinson’s disease you may be able to keep your symptoms under control for longer.

Exercise is a step toward major mind and body benefits

It’s never too early – or too late – to experience the benefits of exercise. Regular exercise can help you manage health conditions and even prevent you from getting sick in the first place.

The best exercises for health include a combination of cardio, strength training, balance exercises and stretching. But the most important thing is to create a workout program that you can stick with. So make it fun! For example, make exercise the time you watch your favorite television shows. If you have a child, encourage active play – it’s a great way to help your kid get a healthy start that pays off throughout their lives.

If you’re struggling to get started, reach out to friends for encouragement or talk to your doctor for help putting together an exercise program.