​4 Surprising benefits of exercise

Jun 07, 2021

Love it or hate it, we all know exercise is good for us. Really good in fact. And whilst most of us decide to exercise because we want to tone up and lose a few pounds, there are heaps of unexpected benefits that come from regularly raising your heart rate.

1. Exercise is great for your brain

Countless studies show that many types of exercise, from walking to cycling, can make you feel better and relieve symptoms of low mood and depression. This is because exercise triggers the release of serotonin, endorphins and dopamine, so-called happy hormones, that dull pain, lighten mood and relieve stress.

Studies also suggest that exercise may be one of the best ways to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Research is ongoing but so far we know that exercise improves blood flow to the brain, which feeds the growth of new blood vessels and possibly even new brain cells.

There is also some evidence to show that older people can reduce their risk of dementia with regular exercise. In a study of 716 people with an average age of 82 years, people who were in the bottom 10 % in terms of amount of daily physical activity were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as those in the top 10 %. A study of 638 people in Scotland found that those who were physically active at age 70 experienced less brain shrinkage over three years than those who were not and the Alzheimer’s Society go so far as to say that ‘of all the lifestyle changes that have been studied, taking regular physical exercise appears to be one of the best things that you can do to reduce your risk of getting dementia.’

2. Exercise gives you energy

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, exercise gives you more energy. Yes, exercise requires an output of energy (and it can be a lot of energy, depending on the type of exercise and the length of your workout), but there’s a good chance you will feel energised after your workout. How so? When you’re sedentary, everything in your body becomes sedentary as well. Your circulation slows down, your muscles weaken, your joints get tight and your brain gets foggy. Exercise reverses these slowdowns and leave you feeling lighter, stronger and more switched on, which is why a morning walk or run can make you feel amazing for the rest of the day!

3. Exercise may slow down the ageing process

Ok so it won’t hold back the hands of time but it might work some magic on your telomeres, according to a study published in Science Advances. As we age and our cells divide over and over again, our telomeres—these are the protective caps on the end of chromosomes—get shorter. To see how exercise affects telomeres, researchers took a muscle biopsy and blood samples from 10 healthy people before and after a 45-minute ride on a stationary bike. They found that exercise increased levels of a molecule that protects telomeres, ultimately slowing how quickly they shorten over time, and concluded that exercise appears to slow ageing at a cellular level [1].

4. Exercise helps the function of your lymphatic system

The lymphatic system can be described as the body’s own waste removal system. A major component of the circulatory system, and twice as large as the arterial system, it comprises a network of tissues and vessels that transport and dispose of lymphatic waste and other fluids. Its most important function is the role it plays in our immune response: lymphocytes (white blood cells) originate from and are transported in the lymphatic system to fight off disease and infections. An impaired lymphatic system will lead to a weakened immune response, meaning we get ill more often.

Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system does not have an organ like the heart to pump fluid around the body. Instead lymph fluid relies on movement and the contraction of muscles to make it flow, and is why regular exercise is so important for your lymphatic system. Any form of exercise is helpful, but exercise under water is especially helpful because of the pressure from the water.

There are plenty of compelling reasons to start moving and at any age, but how long should you exercise for? Research suggests that it doesn’t take much movement to get the benefits. One three-month study that pitted short but intensive 10-minute workouts against longer 50-minute sessions, found that the workouts resulted in identical improvements in heart function and blood-sugar control, even though one workout was five times longer than the other.

What’s the take-home? Yes, you do have the time to limber up.

[1] Nuclear respiratory factor 1 and endurance exercise promote human telomere transcription | Science Advances (sciencemag.org)