You undoubtedly have a hunch that exercise is beneficial to your health, and you’ve probably heard that it’s “heart-healthy.” But, if you’re like most people, that isn’t enough to motivate you to work up a sweat on a regular basis. Only 20% of Americans get the recommended 150 minutes of strength and cardiovascular physical activity per week. More than half of all baby boomers report doing no exercise at all, and 80.2 million Americans over the age of 6 are completely inactive, according to my TIME cover story, “The Exercise Cure.”
That’s bad news, but new research indicates that there are numerous compelling reasons to begin moving at any age, even if you’re sick or pregnant. Scientists are discovering that exercise is, in fact, medicine. Claude Bouchard, director of the human genomics laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, states, “There is no drug that comes near to what exercise can do.” “And even if there was, it would be prohibitively expensive.”
1. Exercise is great for your brain.
It has been associated with reduced sadness, improved memory, and faster learning. Exercise appears to be the best approach to prevent or delay the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease, which is a major concern for many Americans.
Scientists aren’t sure why exercise alters the structure and function of the brain, but it’s a hot topic of study. Thanks to the protein BDNF, they’ve discovered that exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, resulting in the formation of new blood vessels and even new brain cells (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF promotes the creation of new neurons and aids in the repair and protection of brain cells. According to a recent study, it may also help people focus.
2. You might get happier.
Numerous studies have shown that various forms of exercise, ranging from walking to cycling, improve people’s moods and can even alleviate depressive symptoms. Serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins, and dopamine are brain chemicals that decrease pain, brighten moods, and relieve tension when you exercise. For years, we’ve been almost entirely focused on the physical advantages of exercise, ignoring the psychological and emotional benefits of being physically active on a regular basis, says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise.
3. It might make you age slower.
Exercise has been demonstrated to increase life expectancy by up to five years. According to a modest new study, moderate-intensity exercise may help cells age more slowly. Humans’ telomeres—the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes—get shorter as they age and their cells divide repeatedly. Researchers took a muscle biopsy and blood samples from 10 healthy adults before and after a 45-minute ride on a stationary bicycle to determine how exercise impacts telomeres. According to the researchers, exercise raises levels of a chemical that protects telomeres, reducing the rate at which they shorten over time. As a result, exercise appears to halt the aging process at the cellular level.
4. It’ll make your skin look better.
Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the skin, supplying oxygen and nutrients that assist skin health and wound healing. That’s why, when patients have injuries, they should get exercising as soon as possible—not only to keep the muscle from atrophying but also to keep the blood flowing to the skin, as Anthony Hackney, an exercise physiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains. If you exercise for long enough, your skin will develop more blood vessels and microscopic capillaries.
The skin also acts as a heat release point. (For further information, see “Why Does My Face Turn Red When I Exercise?”) Your muscles generate a lot of heat while you work out, which you have to deal with.
5. Amazing things can happen in just a few minutes.
According to new studies, it doesn’t take much activity to reap the benefits. “The topic of ‘How low can you go?’ has piqued our curiosity.” Martin Gibala, a professor of exercise physiology at McMaster University in Ontario, agrees. He wanted to see how successful a 10-minute workout as compared to a traditional 50-minute workout. Three rigorous 20-second bursts of all-out, as-hard-as-you-can exertion are followed by brief recoveries in his micro-workout. He compared the brief workout to the usual program over the course of three months to discover which was superior. Even though one activity lasted five times longer than the other, the workouts resulted in identical improvements in heart function and blood sugar control. If you’re willing and able to put in the effort, you can succeed.
6. It can help you recover from a major illness.
Even really rigorous exercise, such as the interval sessions Gibala is researching, can be beneficial to people with a variety of chronic illnesses, ranging from Type 2 diabetes to heart failure. That’s fresh thinking because people with certain ailments have been urged not to exercise for decades. Scientists now know that a much larger number of people can and should exercise. According to a recent study of more than 300 research trials, exercise was even more beneficial in helping people rehabilitate after a stroke.
7. Your fat cells will shrink.
Carbohydrates and lipids are both used as energy sources by the body. However, persistent aerobic exercise training improves the body’s ability to burn fat, which requires a large amount of oxygen to convert to energy. One of the benefits of exercise training is that it strengthens and improves our circulatory system’s ability to supply oxygen, allowing us to metabolize more fat as an energy source, Hackney adds. As a result, your fat cells, which create the chemicals that cause persistent low-grade inflammation, shrink, and inflammation decreases.