The number-one reason most people begin an exercise regimen is to lose weight. You may know people—or you may be one of those people—who binge through the winter, for example, and then thrust themselves into a rigorous exercise program in the spring to lose weight for the dreaded swimsuit season. And while losing and maintaining weight is certainly the most apparent outward benefit of exercise, and the one we are all most familiar with, it is only one of many fantastic health benefits.
Today, we’re going to share 10 benefits of exercise that you might not know about. We’ll start with the musculoskeletal system (1–5). You may be aware that exercise strengthens the muscles, bones, and joints, but let’s zoom in closer on these structures and how exercise affects certain musculoskeletal conditions. Then we’ll explore the benefits of exercise to some other areas of the body (6–10).
1. Exercise Relieves Muscle Inflammation in the Back
The multifidus muscle is a critical stabilizing muscle in the back. It is a large muscle that provides spinal support. When there is damage to the back, these muscles can become inflamed, or when these muscles are weak, they are unable to properly support the spine, creating sloppy motion and lack of control in the vertebrae (back bones). Exercise may reduce multifidus muscle inflammation even in the presence of disc degeneration.
2. Exercise Improves Cartilage in Mild Arthritis
Keeping cartilage healthy is one way to help prevent arthritis, but when mild arthritis has already set in, caring for and maintaining the cartilage you have is important. For patients who have mild knee arthritis, hitting the gym has been shown in one high-level study to improve the quality of knee cartilage.
3. Exercise Outperforms NSAIDs in Relieving Arthritis Symptoms
Arthritis sufferers tend to pop nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Advil and Celebrex, like candy. and doctors recommend them for everything from mild acute pain and inflammation to more severe chronic conditions. Unfortunately, however, NSAIDs are dangerous drugs. A study last year found that exercise that focused on knee strengthening actually outperformed NSAIDs for relieving knee arthritis symptoms.
4. Exercise Repairs Muscles as You Age
Staying active is the key to helping muscles repair as you age. One study suggests that exercise may result in not only faster muscle repair but also increased muscle mass. This may occur due to the activation of stem cells that continuously repair muscle tissue (see number 4).
5. Exercise Increases Stem Cells in the Muscles
The benefits of exercise go all the way down to the cellular level according to a study in 2012 that found that stem cell numbers in muscle increased with just a single episode of exercise. Why is this important? Muscle stem cells secrete factors, in response to muscle strain (particularly weight-lifting exercise), that help grow new muscle cells. This keeps our muscles stronger even as we age. If we aren’t using our muscles, as we age they will atrophy, or shrink, causing us to take on that more frail appearance so common with aging. When it comes to muscles and aging, remember “use it or lose it.”
6. Exercise Lowers Your Genetic Age
One study found that exercise can actually alter aging all the way down at the genetic level. Specifically, the genes influenced by exercise were all involved with muscle repair and maintenance. In addition, the effect of exercise on the DNA (a reduction in DNA methylation, or DNA damage) was more robust in an older population, meaning older study participants appreciated the slowed-aging benefits of exercise even more than the younger participants.
7. Exercise Keeps Your Immune System Healthy as You Age
Those who exercise regularly certainly can’t help but notice that they feel better and seem to experience less sickness than their nonexercising counterparts. One study seems to explain this as it suggested that exercise not only gives the immune system a healthy boost but also prevents declining immunity levels as we age.
8. Exercise Recharges Your Brain
If you are someone who follows a regular exercise routine, you likely already know that it clears brain fog and keeps you focused, but did you know that even just a brief 10 minutes of exercise can actually recharge your brain? So during that middle-of-the-day brain drain, instead of grabbing another cup of coffee, hit the treadmill or take a brisk walk around the block (exercise should be at a moderate to vigorous pace) to sharpen your brain.
9. Exercise Improves the Balance of Bacteria in Your Gut
This is one of the benefits of exercise few people would have ever guessed. We have both good and bad bacteria in our gut, and the key is to maintain a proper balance. A balanced gut microbiome (the microbial environment in our gut) not only keeps our digestive system healthy but it helps keep our whole body in proper balance. Healthy foods equal an abundance of healthy gut bacteria, while junk foods equal an abundance of bad gut bacteria. But it seems cardio-based exercise also works to keep our gut bacteria in check by increasing the good bacteria and also positively impacting gut function.
10. Exercise Decreases the Risk of All-Cause Mortality
What is all-cause mortality? The risk of dying from any cause. It could be cancer, heart disease, respiratory illness, and so on. One study consisting of nearly 80,000 patients over the age of 65 analyzed all-cause mortality and compared the findings among those who exercised and those who did not. The findings were impressive. Those who exercised 1–2 times per week had a 23% less chance of dying from any cause. Those who exercised 3–5 times per week had a 46% less chance of dying from any cause.
In summary, while there are many well-known benefits of exercise, such as maintaining weight, keeping the heart healthy, controlling blood pressure, decreasing diabetes risk, and so on, today we wanted to reveal some of those exercise benefits you might not know about. And this is just a drop in the bucket. The bottom line is, get out and exercise; your whole body, all the way down to the cellular level, will thank you.