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21 Benefits of Exercise: Physical & Mental Health (& Seniors)

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Here’s an easy way to get accused of false advertising… 

Invent a medication and claim the effects were the same as the benefits of exercise! 

But these are proven health benefits of exercise. There’s almost no single element of your health and fitness that exercise doesn’t impact in a positive and meaningful way.  

I don’t want to just make this article a love letter to exercise though. 

I want to explain in a concise and evidence-based way not only what good exercise does… but how and why it does it. I’ll use my two decades of experience as a certified personal trainer to help with this.

I’ve kept to the bigger benefits and steered away from the niche improvements. 

Note- this isn’t meant to be a scientific paper.

In order to manage it without the article descending into a wall of text, I’ve broken it down into a few wider sections:

Hopefully, this will make it more digestible and easier to read. But before we dig into the benefits of exercise I want to share some research I did myself…

Benefits of exercise statistics from a poll

Benefits of exercise statistics

I own a strength and conditioning facility in the UK called MyGym

I ran an email poll for my members to discover what their most appreciated benefits of exercise are. I asked them to pick 3 from a list of 10 benefits. We had 348 responders, and here’s what my members said were the top 5 benefits they enjoy from their exercise…

  1. Weight loss – 239 votes
  2. Strength improvement – 212 votes
  3. Cardiovascular fitness – 189 votes
  4. Mental health/stress release – 107 votes
  5. General wellbeing – 101 votes

This is largely in line with what we’d expect and it shows that aesthetics are still important to most gym users. 

However, there are a lot of people who are interested in how they feel as much as how they look. Which perhaps suggests a change in what we’re looking for from our exercise regime.

Here are some of the main findings…

69% of gym-goers want to lose weight

There’s no surprise here that the top choice for people to go to the gym was to lose weight. 

After all… a third of U.S. adults 20 years of age and older (over 100 million people) are obese according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Everyone knows this is a rising problem globally so there are no surprises here. 

61% of gym-goers want to improve their strength

Almost 2 out of 3 people from the survey said that they wanted to “feel stronger”. 

This is closely tied to gaining muscle. However, it does back up the fact that many people are more concerned with how they feel rather than how they look. Not every gym bunny is a meathead that wants to look like Arnie! 

1 in 3 gym-goers want to relieve stress

This is something that I can anecdotally agree with. 

I’ve noticed the rise in the number of clients that claim the gym has done wonders for their mental health. 

As I will show you later… the benefits of exercise on mental health is quite remarkable and I wish more people were aware of this. So please do share this with anyone that you think this could help!

1 in 6 gym-goers are looking to socialize

This also links with the mental health benefits (whether people realize this or not!)

Dr. Sheldon Cohen says that…

“Social support may have indirect effects on health through enhanced mental health, by reducing the impact of stress, or by fostering a sense of meaning and purpose in life”

There is a good chunk of people that exercise to socialize. Which essentially attacks all aspects of health (physical, mental and social well-being) in one go.

7 physical & performance benefits of exercise

benefits of exercise

The benefits of exercise for health and fitness are endless. But here’s a snapshot of the big ones. 

Be patient, there’s a lot of information here! 

There’s a link to a relevant study with each point as well.

1. Exercise can improve your strength 

Progressive resistance training has been shown time and again to improve your strength. Here’s how to make your muscles bigger and stronger… 

Frequently exposing muscles to ever greater loads (weights) and allowing sufficient recovery time.

Simple (in theory).

The benefit isn’t limited to muscles either – connective tissues and bones become stronger as well.  

Almost 2 out of 3 members of my gym claim that they want to get stronger from exercise… the science proves that they can (and they do!)

If you’re new to exercise and are looking for some beginner weight training advice, check out our beginner weight training routine. It’ll help you get much stronger and more confident with weight training.

2. Exercise such as plyometrics helps you build more power

Power and strength are different.

Strength is your ability to generate enough force to lift a heavy load. Power is your ability to generate an applied force at speed. For example, a strength movement might include picking up something heavy or pushing something heavy. A power movement is something like a sprint, a big jump, or a throw.

Training with moderate to heavy weights at very high speeds will make you more powerful, more explosive, and more athletic. If you want to maintain your ability to generate force, train power as well as strength.

Exercise such as plyometrics helps build more power

3. Exercise is fundamental to injury prevention 

One of the unsung heroes of the benefits of exercise is its role in injury prevention. 

By exercising regularly you will make muscles, bones, and connective tissues stronger. All things being equal, strong tissues are more resistant to injuries than weak tissues. So they’re more able to withstand high impacts or movements that would hurt otherwise weaker tissues.

Spending time working on exercise interventions will help you to significantly reduce injury risk. This is why sports teams will use strength and conditioning experts. They make sure athletes are more injury-proof despite their high workloads. 

4. Exercise helps you to sleep 

A lot of people have trouble sleeping.

This can then have an impact on other areas of your life. It can also affect your health in other ways, such as preventing full recovery from exercise. Aka increasing injury risk. 

Research shows us that exercise can help us get to sleep quicker and stay asleep longer. This means we improve our overall well-being. In fact, in some cases, researchers believe exercise can even be used as a treatment to help sleeping disorders

Just try not to train in a very high-intensity fashion late at night. That can have the opposite effect by keeping you awake at night. 

5. Improved flexibility is another benefit of exercise

When we think of fitness benefits of exercise, we are drawn to increased muscle mass.

Improved strength.

Improved stamina etc.

But we shouldn’t forget improved flexibility. Moving better is just as important as any other element of your fitness because poor movement quality leads to injury. You don’t want to be the strongest guy on the treatment table, do you?

Research shows us that regular PNF-type stretching is the best way to improve the range of movement. 

Therefore movement quality and muscle function at the end ranges. More flexible muscles and joints are healthier and less injury-prone.

6. Exercise can help to reduce and remove back pain

Globally, millions of people suffer from persistent lower back pain. 

This impacts their quality of life. 

Alongside living in discomfort, it also limits their ability to work, socialize and enjoy time with their families. You know exactly what I mean here if you’ve ever had any kind of back pain!

Research shows us time and again that exercise helps lower back issues

Regular exercise improves blood flow to an area. It improves mobility and reduces feelings of discomfort. It also strengthens the area to help repair injuries and prevent future issues.

7. Exercise has a marked improvement on cardiovascular fitness

This one is something that seems obvious. 

But the obvious things are often the ones that are overlooked! Stopping smoking, improving your diet, etc will help if you want to improve your cardiovascular system. 

But nothing is as effective as exercising regularly.

In previously untrained individuals, endurance training improves peak oxygen uptake (VO2peak). It increases the capillary density of working muscle, raises blood volume, and decreases heart rate during exercise. 

Regular running, swimming, cycling, hill walking, rowing, etc. will achieve this goal.

Exercise has a marked improvement on cardiovascular fitness

5 benefits of exercise on mental health

8. Depression is reduced significantly by frequent exercise

1 out of 3 members of my gym wants to reduce stress. And luckily for them, they are coming to the right place!

The evidence suggesting that exercise is an effective way to combat and even beat depression is strong. 

And it’s getting even stronger. 

In clinically depressed patients, exercise decreases symptoms of depression. This evidence has been well established. 

A study from 2004 investigates the impact of exercise on symptoms of depression. Lynette Craft, PhD, FACSM, concludes that:

‘Data regarding the positive mood effects of exercise involvement, independent of fitness gains, suggest that the focus should be on frequency of exercise rather than duration or intensity.’

Therefore it stands to reason that it doesn’t matter how hard you’re working. As long as you’re active regularly, you’ll help to combat depression.

9. HIIT exercise can help control anxiety

Anxiety is a condition that can cause people severe psychological distress in the short term. 

In some cases, general anxiety can quickly escalate. It can become full-blown panic attacks if it is allowed to progress unchecked. The issue for sufferers of anxiety is that in many cases, it can come from nowhere. And as such, there’s no warning of an impending attack.

There is a lot of research into the effects of exercise on anxiety. It shows that high or low intensity exercise helps to reduce feelings of anxiety. With high-intensity exercise proving particularly effective. 

The researchers compared treadmill High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and lower intensity treadmill work. HIIT helped anxiety sufferers stop feeling anxious more quickly.

Read in-depth about the benefits of HIIT here.

10. Exercise improves trust and prosocial behaviours

In our own research, we found that about 1 in 6 people go to the gym specifically to socialize. But there is more to exercise than simply being able to work out or exercise with friends. 

Professor Giovanni Di Bartolomeo found in his 2017 research:

On average, we find that subjects exposed to physical activity exhibit more trust and prosocial behaviors than those who are not exposed. These effects are not temporary.

It’s clear that exercise can actually help you improve your social skills! So if you ever get anxious going to a social gathering, exercise could be the answer to becoming a social butterfly.

Exercise improves trust and prosocial behaviours

11. Exercise leads to better food choices

This might appear to be a physical benefit (weight loss). However, there is a lot of research that shows how mental health issues can lead to obesity.

And the choices we make are ultimately down to our brain! Aka ‘mental’.

Exercise can help us make better choices around food as well, which is an interesting observation. There’s evidence that shows people who are engaged in regular exercise make better food choices, which will help keep us healthier overall.  

In this study, researchers note that ‘habitually active persons eat more and ingest more fruits and vegetables than less active peers.’ This suggests that using exercise as a starting block makes people choose healthier foods than they would if they weren’t engaged in regular exercise.

12. Exercise helps to reduce suicide risk

I’ve already mentioned mental health improvements from exercise. 

But this is a step further… this is exercise and suicide. 

At the best of times, mental health is a difficult field to navigate. Because ultimately you are dealing in a world where people who are physically well feel terrible. When someone is at their very lowest, perhaps they feel like the last thing they want to do is exercise. 

Despite that, the evidence shows that exercise can be literally life-saving in this case.

In a wide-scale study including over 50,000 subjects, there was a clear link between exercise and mental health improvements. Including a significant reduction in suicidal feelings and actions. Regular exercise is clearly correlated with improved mood and should be prescribed as a preventative measure against mental health issues.

3 benefits of exercise for seniors

So far we’ve covered the functional fitness benefits of exercise. 

But we haven’t discussed the more medicinal benefits. Exercise isn’t just about looking good and being fitter – it’s the best medical insurance you could possibly have. 

This section will particularly look at the anti-aging benefits of exercise…

13. Exercise helps with balance and falls prevention

If you’re reading this as a young buck, this point will feel irrelevant. However, it’s important to understand a couple of points…

  1. Aging comes to us all – you won’t be young forever
  2. You may have elderly relatives whom this information will help

Exercise, especially strength training, helps to reduce the risk of falls and injuries in the elderly. 

Over multiple studies, various forms of exercise have shown a significant reduction in falls and injuries in the elderly. If you are worried about aging well, start exercising as early as you can. The stronger and more functionally fit you are as you age, the better your long term health will be. 

14. Exercise is neuroprotective

One of the major health concerns as we age is neurodegenerative diseases. For example, Alziehmers, Parkinsons, Dementia etc. 

One of the most powerful neuroprotective agents we have is regular exercise. Time and again the cognitive benefits of exercise have been proven. But the more recent evidence is showing benefits beyond cognitive processing and into neuroprotection.

Professor B. Mahalakshmi quotes in a 2020 study into the neuroprotective nature of exercise…

‘Exercise carries out many protective and preventive activities such as improvements in memory, cognition, sleep and mood; growth of new blood vessels in the nervous system; and the reduction of stress, anxiety, neuro-inflammation, and insulin resistance.’ 

15. Exercise improves your cognitive function 

It has long been hypothesized that exercise improves cognitive function. 

But recent research is proving it to be the case. 

Interestingly, the research is showing that exercise helps us process information more effectively. But it also serves as a protective measure against neurological and cognitive disorders.

The evidence accumulated so far indicates that exercise is a strong promoter of cognitive health in humans. So ensuring you get regular exercise is a powerful way to help you maintain brain function and health in both the short and long term.

6 benefits of exercise on diseases

In this section, we’ll look at the benefits of exercise when it comes to preventing diseases. And in some cases, even helping to remove symptoms of common conditions, many of which can cause serious health issues.

16. Exercise reduces your heart disease risk 

A long-known benefit of regular exercise is the beneficial effects it has on your cardiovascular health. 

Physically active individuals have lower blood pressure, higher insulin sensitivity, and a more favorable plasma lipoprotein profile. There is also solid research that shows lower incidence of heart disease amongst active populations.

Around 59% of the reduced heart disease risk is linked to direct physiological changes to the cardiovascular system as a result of exercise. 

The remaining 41% of the benefits aren’t perfectly clear. But the suggestion is that exercise reduces inflammation which can cause issues further down the line. You don’t have to do anything special here. Just hitting the recommended 150 minutes, or 5 x 30 minutes of exercise per week is more than enough.

17. Exercise reduces the risk of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is an umbrella term for lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. They vary in severity but can be (in extreme cases) fatal. According to data from 2019, COPD accounted for 3.23 million deaths worldwide. Whilst there are a lot of lifestyle factors that contribute to the condition (smoking, dusty environments, exposure to chemicals), exercise can help.

A Japanese study from 2010 concluded that there is…

‘an inverse association between life-long physical activity and the risk of COPD and breathlessness. Promotion of physical activity to prevent this major disease should be encouraged.’ 

The sooner you can start exercising, the better.

18. Exercise reduces the risk of becoming diabetic

One of the most powerful preventative measures against diabetes is exercise. It’s really quite amazing how effective it is because it reduces the chances of developing diabetes in a couple of ways…

  1. Exercise literally removes sugar from the blood when it uses it as fuel
  2. Insulin (the hormone responsible for dealing with sugar) is made more effective by exercise

These two points combine to make exercise a very effective weapon against developing type 2 diabetes. That’s not to say that exercise alone is going to prevent the condition entirely – you still have to make sure you keep your weight in check. But regular exercise helps prevent diabetes more than any other single approach. 

Go for frequent bouts of exercise, ideally daily.

Exercise reduces the risk of becoming diabetic

19. Exercise is key to obesity prevention

It’s obvious to note that exercise and burning more calories is an effective way to prevent obesity. 

But few people quite understand what that actually looks like in real life. Obesity has steadily increased as jobs become more sedentary and commuting is reduced thanks to working at home.

In work done by Harvard University, a suggestion was made that thanks to declining general levels of activity. We should be aiming for 45-60 minutes of exercise per day in order to prevent obesity.

This could be walking or more vigorous exercise, but it’d help dramatically increase calories burned every day.

Another obvious and important factor in obesity prevention is proper nutrition – read all about it in our ultimate guide on nutrition for fitness.

20. Exercise reduces cancer risk

Cancer remains one of the biggest killers in the world. With an estimated 1 in 2 of us suffering from some form of cancer in our lifetimes. 

There are so many different forms of cancer (meaning it would take forever to link a reduction in risk to each one). But there’s a link between regular exercise and reduced cancer incidence.

In this article on the research around exercise and cancer, there’s a significant reduction in cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, endometrial tissue, throat, kidney, and stomach. There will undoubtedly be more than just these, but that’s a start! 

The link is absolutely clear – exercise helps to reduce the risk of cancer.

21. Exercise helps to reduce the all-cause mortality risk…

All-cause mortality is the risk of death from any form, but typically it concerns the four biggest killers of all…

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • COPD
  • Neurodegenerative diseases

When we look at the reduction in risk of death from exercise, the all-cause mortality risk gives us a good overall figure. With most seriously unwell people suffering from multiple issues at the same time, exercise can have preventative measures across a series of illnesses.

Research around exercise and all-cause mortality risk reduction shows that exercise burning around 1000 calories per week will have an up to 30% reduction in risk of all-cause mortality. That’s a remarkable figure for not a great deal of effort each week.

Benefits of exercise – the bottom line

We’ve known for millennia that exercise improves our physical and mental health – there are quotes from Socrates (Ancient Greek Philosopher) that prove so…

“It is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit.”

“Surely a person of sense would submit to anything, like exercise, so as to obtain a well-functioning mind and a pleasant, happy life.”

Advances in exercise and medical science can prove to us that exercise is so much more than just a way to look better. As we’ve shown in this article, exercise is a life extension tool as well as a life improvement too.

Use it well, and use it often. 

Your body and health will thank you for it.

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Steve Hoyles is a certified personal trainer and gym owner. Since graduating with his Sports Science degree in 2004 he's worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. His writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries as he inspires to help as many people as possible live a healthy lifestyle.

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