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Benefits of exercise

Regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. People who lead an active life are more likely to live longer and less likely to develop serious diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Exercise not only makes you physically fitter, it also improves your mental health and general sense of wellbeing.  

This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.

Everybody can benefit from doing some exercise. It’s important that physical activity is a part of life for children, adults and older people.

It doesn’t have to be a vigorous workout and you can find ways to fit physical activity into your daily routine – it may be as simple as walking to and from the shops. If you have never exercised or haven’t for a while, it needn’t take much effort to get started. 

Doing regular aerobic activity can help prevent major illnesses. Aerobic exercise is anything that uses oxygen, raises your heart rate and makes you slightly breathless, for example brisk walking or cycling. Whether you’re just starting to exercise or have always been active, make sure you take steps to stay injury free and able to perform to the best of your ability. Nutrition and hydration also play key roles in this – it’s important to eat the correct nutrients to provide the fuel you need to exercise and drink water when you feel thirsty.

Some of the health benefits of aerobic exercise are described below.

Heart health

  • Exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Inactive people have double the risk of dying from heart disease compared with people who are active. So if you don't do any exercise at all, even doing a little – for example walking each day – can help reduce your risk of these conditions.
  • Taking exercise can help to reduce high blood pressure (hypertension). High blood pressure is common. If you have high blood pressure, you’re more likely to have a stroke or heart attack. Exercise can also help to prevent high blood pressure from developing in the first place.
  • You can help to improve the balance of your cholesterol by exercising. There are two types of cholesterol – low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is sometimes called ‘bad’ cholesterol; HDL cholesterol is sometimes called ‘good’ cholesterol. High levels of LDL and low levels of HDL increase your risk of heart disease. Studies show that regular exercise, such as brisk walking or running, is linked to higher levels of HDL cholesterol.

Bones and joints

  • You’re more likely to have lower back pain if you don't do any exercise. If you do have lower back pain, exercise can help to reduce it.
  • Regular, moderate activity, including walking, swimming and cycling, can help to treat and reduce pain caused by osteoarthritis. This is the most common form of arthritis, with about eight out of 10 people over 50 affected by the condition. It may also prevent and slow the progression of osteoarthritis.
  • Physical activity can increase bone mineral density in children and help to maintain strong bones in adolescents. It also slows down bone degeneration later in life. This can help to prevent osteoporosis – when your bones become brittle and more prone to breaking. High-impact exercise, such as running and skipping, puts weight on your bones and increases bone density in younger people. But if you already have osteoporosis, it’s better to choose low-impact, weight-bearing exercise, such as gentle walking or swimming.

Cancer

  • You’re less likely to develop certain cancers if you’re physically active. In up to a quarter of all people who get colon or breast cancer, not doing enough exercise is thought to be the main cause.
  • Some studies show that physical activity can reduce the risk of developing lung, prostate and endometrial (lining of the womb) cancers.
  • There is some evidence to suggest that exercise can be beneficial if you’re undergoing treatment for cancer or recovering from the disease.

Diabetes

  • Doing physical activity can help to preventtype 2 diabetes. Exercise is especially important if you’re at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes, for example, if you’re overweight, have high blood pressure or have close family members with the condition.
  • Exercise is also good for you if you already have diabetes – regular physical activity can help control your blood sugar levels and prevent long-term complications.

Mental health and wellbeing

  • Exercise can both help prevent and treat mental illness. It’s thought that physical activity can reduce your risk of developing depression and dementia, and it may help to treat depression if you already have the condition. There is also some evidence to suggest that exercise can help improve stress and anxiety.
  • You’re likely to feel happier, more satisfied with life and have an improved sense of wellbeing if you're physically active. Introduce regular exercise into your routine and you should sleep better, lower your stress levels and boost your self-image.

Weight

  • Taking exercise can help you to manage your weight. Physical activity burns up calories and so helps to create a healthy energy balance. Exercise is essential for everyone for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • You’re more likely to be obese if you’re inactive. Physical activity alone can help you lose weight if you're overweight or obese – the more you do, the more you will lose. However, combining exercise with a healthy diet will mean you lose weight faster. 

Physical activity in childhood has a number of benefits including healthy growth and development. It helps children maintain a healthy weight and gives them an opportunity to interact with other people and make friends. Activities that put stress on children’s bones, including jumping and skipping, can help protect against osteoporosis in later life and develop strong, healthy bones. 

Further information

  • British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health
    01509 226 421
    www.bhfactive.org.uk

Sources

  • Start active, stay active: a report on physical activity from the four home countries’ Chief Medical Officers. Department of Health. www.dh.gov.uk, 2011Exercise safely. Better Health Channel. www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au, published June 2012
  • Coronary heart disease statistics. British Heart Foundation, 2010. www.bhf.org.uk
  • Risk factors. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed 17 August 2012
  • FAQs. Blood Pressure Association. www.bloodpressureuk.org, accessed 2012
  • Understand your risk for high blood pressure. American Heart Association. www.heart.org, published April 2012
  • Physical activity. HEART UK. www.heartuk.org.uk, published February 2012
  • What is back pain? National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. www.niams.nih.gov, published September 2009
  • Facts and figures. BackCare. www.backcare.org.uk, accessed 17 August 2012
  • Hayden J, van Tulder MW, Malmivaara A, et al. Exercise therapy for treatment of non-specific low back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2005, Issue 3. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000335.pub2
  • Osteoarthritis. Prodigy. www.prodigy.clarity.co.uk, published August 2008
  • Living with osteoarthritis. Arthritis Care. www.arthritiscare.org.uk, accessed 17 August 2012
  • Hip osteoarthritis. Sports Medicine Information. www.nsmi.org.uk, accessed 17 August 2012
  • Your children and bone health. National Osteoporosis Society. www.nos.org.uk, published June 2012
  • Exercise and osteoporosis. National Osteoporosis Society. www.nos.org.uk, accessed 17 August 2012
  • Global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. World Health Organization. www.who.int, accessed August 2012
  • Physical activity and cancer. National Cancer Institute. www.cancer.gov, published July 2009
  • The benefits of being active during and after cancer treatment. Macmillan Cancer Support. www.macmillan.org.uk, published July 2011
  • Mishra SI, Scherer RW, Geigle PM, et al. Exercise interventions on health-related quality of life for cancer survivors. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 8. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007566.pub2
  • Diabetes and exercise. Diabetes.co.uk. www.diabetes.co.uk, accessed 19 August 2012
  • Physical exercise and anxiety. Anxiety UK. www.anxietyuk.org.uk, accessed 20 August 2012
  • Obesity among adults in the UK. BHF National Centre for Physical Activity and Health, 2010. www.bhfactive.org.uk
  • Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet: England, 2010. The Health and Social Care Information Centre, 2010. www.bhfactive.org.uk

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