The Health Benefits of Regular Exercise

A woman taking a breather during a run
“What the River Knows” by Wayne Fields, 1990

Regular exercise has many health benefits in addition to helping you to maintain a healthy weight. Improving cardiovascular fitness (heart, lung, blood system) reduces risk of developing heart attacks or stroke in later life.

Although the key elements of living a healthy life are in eating a healthy diet and keeping your weight down, exercise itself plays some other roles in the body. However, as always, there are health warnings too. Here we look at some of the health benefits of exercise, some potential dangers and also give advice on safety when working out.

Anti Ageing Benefits of Exercise

The benefits of exercise, especially cardio forms like jogging and running, really do go beyond simply improving cardiovascular fitness and aiding weight loss. An active and healthy lifestyle can ward off cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke and infections, all of which can prove deadly for elderly people.

Research carried out by the Stanford University Medical Center has revealed that running has some anti-ageing benefits. We have always known that running was a good way to improve fitness and building muscular endurance, but it was not known what impact it had on long-term health. The good news is that it can add years to the your life, and improve the quality of life in old age.

The research revealed that elderly runners on average experience 50% fewer cases of fatal illnesses such as cancer. The study followed over 500 runners, all 50 years old or older at the start of the study, for a period of 20 years. After 19 years, 34% of the non-runners had died, compared to only 15% of the runners. Also, although disability affected both groups, on average runners did not develop serious disability until 16 years after the non-runners. So running, as well as increasing lifespan, can also increase quality of life by 16 years.

Once the subjects reach their 80’s, the differences in health and well-being increased further. Running not only reduced the rate of heart, artery and respiratory related deaths, but also of cancer, neurological disease and other infections.

Also, strength and quality of knee joints were examined. It has long been assumed that long-term running damages knees, and is not good physically for the body. However, the research showed that there was no evidence that runners were more likely to suffer osteoarthritis or need total knee replacements than non-runners. So people refusing to run on the grounds that it is bad for the knees now have no excuse – if your knees are going to fail you, it will happen regardless if you run or not!

Lead research Professor James Fries, emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford, said: “The study has a very pro-exercise message. If you had to pick one thing to make people healthier as they age, it would be aerobic exercise. The health benefits of exercise are greater than we thought.”

Age Concern, the UK charity which promotes the well-being of all older people, says that many older people do not exercise enough. Currently more than 90% of people in the UK over 75 years do not meet the international guidelines of half-an-hour of moderate exercise at least five times a week.

Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern, said: “This research re-confirms the clear benefits of regular exercise for older people. Exercise can help older people to stay mobile and independent, ensure a healthy heart, keep weight and stress levels under control, and promote better sleep. While younger people are barraged with encouragement to lead healthier lifestyles, the health needs of older people are often overlooked.”

It is never too late to start running!

Exercise Makes You Think More Positively About Your Body

A study found that the act of exercising helps women to feel happier with the way they look, even when there are no major real improvements. Just doing a fitness class or going for a run is enough to put people in such a positive mood that they feel that they are fitter and healthier.

This revelation could lead to a change in the way we tackle eating disorders. In most cases an eating disorder develops as a result of a person thinking that their body is not good enough, usually too fat. Many people aspire to the celebrity model of “fitness” and want to look like an actress or popstar and develop eating disorders as a result of being overly critical of their own body condition.

Exercising could be enough on its own to raise self-esteem and make people feel better about the way they are. Encouraging people with eating disorders to exercise everyday, ideally in classes and team games, could put an end to many eating disorders.

The study found that simple performing regular workouts helped women to feel better about their bodies and lifted their self-esteem, which prompted them to carry on working to improve health and well-being.

Of course, it is worth remembering that in time, with the right exercise program and diet, people will become much fitter and healthier and have real reason to feel happier with the way they look.

Exercise Repairs the Brain and Improves Memory

A few weeks ago a documentary on the television revealed that Brain Games, that is logic games designed to help improve cognitive function, do not actually help to improve your memory.

study by the BBC showed that although people got better at playing brain games the more they played, the gains were not transferable, meaning that they were not more adept in other areas of life. There were no improvements in memory, reasoning, planning or visuospatial ability.

This study goes against empirical data that suggests that people that do crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, play chess, read or just talk more are less likely to suffer dementia.

This research has since been backed up by Henriette van Praag who published a paper in Trends in Neurosciences. Her research has shown that exercise improves brain function as exercise prompts the body to grow new brain cells. It is also thought that the increase blood flow during exercise provides the brain with additional blood/oxygen to could help it function better.

So, how do we keep our brains in good working order?

In the past people advise to eat fish to boost memory and thinking. This advice still holds true, although we now know that the key ingredient is Omega 3 fatty acids which are abundant in some species of oily fish, and also essential for healthy brain development.

More recent research has shown that the best way to keep the brain healthy and to boost memory is to exercise. German researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology in Freiburg have discovered that exercise increases the formation of new brain neurons. Admittedly this research was conducted on mice and not humans, but it is thought that the same process occurs in the human brain.

Another interesting discovery is that abnormal brain activity seems to trigger new neuron growth. Such abnormal activity includes epileptic seizures.

In the study it was seen that mice which were very active managed to wake up dormant stem cells and these cells started to divide and help to build new brain cells.

Consequently, running promotes the formation of new neurons.” Verdon Taylor, Lead Researcher

The researchers are sure that the same effect will be seen in humans. Exercise helps make your brain stronger as well as your muscles.

Studies Highlight the Health Benefits Of Outdoor Exercise

A new study carried out by researchers at Bangor University in Wales has shown that exercising in open spaces and parks has more than just mental health benefits. In 2007 we reported that there were mental health benefits to outdoor exercise, and earlier this summer we gave some ideas for outdoor exercise. The latest studies show that people who exercise outdoors have more energy and get a better workout than those that exercise indoors.

“This systematic review contributes a rigorous and objective synthesis of the evidence for added benefits to health from activities in a natural environment.” University of Bangor.

Also, exercising in a park or green open space is better for you than exercising in the built up environment. So a run in the local park is better than running on pavements in residential areas.

The greatest thing really about exercising outdoors is that each workout is slightly different. Taking a different running route and variations in weather provides a different environment each time, whereas the gym rarely changes.

Also, many people exercising in the gym while listening to music on their headphones or while watching television and thoughts turn inwards. When exercising outdoors people are more likely to take in their surroundings and to be more aware of themselves and the exercising they are doing. This also helps to give a greater feeling of accomplishment as well as reduce stress.

There are many ways to exercising outdoors, although jogging is the most popular. Cycling through the countryside, hill walking or circuit training in a park can all provide a much better workout than you can get in a gym, plus it is free.

In China it is very common for people to exercise in parks. Gyms are still relatively rare – why pay to exercise in a gym when you can go to the local park to practice kung-fu, tai chi and qigong?

Exercise Could Be Bad For Your Health!

Stressed corporate boxerDon’t panic! This is a slightly tongue-in-cheek headline that Tony Barlow wrote in

Tony Barlow is a senior lecturer in mental health at Birmingham City University, and puts forward the idea that some people become so obsessed with the idea that they must lose weight and get fit or lose their weight that the stress they put themselves through may actually be bad for their mental health.

I would rather leave this earth at 70 with a smile on my face than at 80 worrying about whether I had eaten enough carrots that day.” Tony Barlow.

Tony explains that although he has seen the advice over the years to exercise for 20 minutes a day, eat 5 portions of fruits and vegetables a day, stop smoking, get active and generally be healthy or else, he has mostly managed to avoid it. Like most people, he has not jumped on the health bandwagon and instead just gone about his business.

Then one day he saw himself in the mirror and in a state of panic he joined the gym. Something he vowed never to do. He now follows a vigorous exercise regime, has swapped he beloved chocolate for brown rice, grilled chicken and vegetables, and is eaten huge amounts of tuna and ditched processed foods. He reports that he has lost weight and gained muscle mass. So what is the problem?

He says that now he is constantly worrying about how many calories are in his food or if he has exercised enough, whereas before he was happy and relaxed most of the time. Tony asks “Are we as a nation jogging into depression? Are we forgetting to be happy as long as long as we have bowl of brown rice?”

He makes an interesting point. Many people remain relatively healthy and fit without scrutinizing their diet and punishing themselves in the gym. Also many more people absolutely love exercising and playing sports and do not suffer from any stress about it at all.

It really depends on why you are exercising. If you join a gym and follow a diet because you feel that you must, then this could lead to some anxiety and stress when you find that you are struggling to follow the plan. It becomes more like you are following strict orders to exercise.

However, the key to really getting fit and healthy is to make it your lifestyle choice to do so, not because you have to, but because you really enjoy it.

There are so many fitness activities on offer now that there really is something for everyone. Most commercial gyms have caught on to this and now provide a wide range of activities and classes in addition to the standard cardio, resistance machines and free weights.

Now gyms are likely to run kettlebell classes, spinning (cycling classes), Zumba dance workouts, yoga and combat fitness as well as the more traditional circuit training classes and step aerobics.

Also, exercise releases endorphins which helps to combat stress, and exercising outdoors has been shown to be even more beneficial to mental health as well as physical well-being.

Is Endurance Exercise Healthy? New Study Highlights Possible Heart Problems

Surface anatomy of the heartSome research has claimed that Endurance Athletes May Incur Heart Damage.

The research examined the physical effect of marathon running on the heart. It was found that marathon runners often experience acute damage to right ventricular function immediately after a race. It would be safe to assume that the same damage occurs after any long training session. The damage is generally repaired within a week, however, the researchers found that sometimes scar tissue is formed (subclinical myocardial scarring) and it is hypothesised that over time this could become problematic.

The research was carried out by Dr. André La Gerche and his colleagues from the University of Melbourne in Australia and published in the European Heart Journal.

Last year similar research was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2010. This earlier research found that 6 months after right-heart overload occurred all acute changes in heart health had normalized. The study concluded that the long-term health of long-distance runners remained good.

“Exercise both protects and provokes cardiovascular events. It’s important to remember, the overall benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks.” Dr. Trivax, Dept. of Cardiovascular Medicine, William Beaumont Hospital.

We have already discussed the health benefits of running in another article and we also discussed Christopher McDougall’s idea that humans are born to run. The discussion led us to some research, or at least opinion, that suggested that young runners (under the age of 18) are actually more suited to running long distances. William Roberts, MD. points out in an article in the Running Times that under 18 year-olds never require medical treatment after running marathons.

There is a lot of concern over the effects of children running long distances and suggestions that it is bad for health. This latest research may help to fuel the arguments against children running long distances at an early age. What we really need to try to understand is the true impact of these changes to the heart in marathon runners.

There needs to be some research into the effects of starting running earlier in life. Maybe the problem is not that people run marathons but that by the time the average adult decides to take up long d-stance running their hearts are already under-developed. Do child runners suffer the same subclinical myocardial scarring as adult runners? If children perform endurance exercise on a regular basis will their hearts develop greater resistance to these stresses?

Sanjay Sharma and Abbas Zaidi responded to this research in the European Heart Journal in an editorial. They were quick to point out that “individuals exercising regularly have an average life expectancy of 7 years longer than their sedentary counterparts” which should hopefully put a stop to people leaping to the conclusion that regular exercise is not healthy! They also point out that studies have already been carried out on the heart health of athletes and found that “adverse cardiac events in athletes are also low and most frequently confined to those harbouring hereditary or congenital cardiac abnormalities“. In this case the definition of an athlete is someone who is performing endurance exercise for several hours a day.

Many people perform endurance training. The army, especially specialised groups such as a the SAS, perform very long runs on a regular basis as a part of their military fitness training. Millions of people run on a regular basis and the overall effect seems to be of reduce obesity, improved health and longer life expectancy. Yes, there may be some muscle scarring in the heart.

But is this a greater risk than not exercising the heart at all? Will scarred heart tissue increase risk of cardiac arrest later in life? Only by carrying out a cohort study of causes of death amongst different athletes can we determine the true impact of long distance running on health. My personal suspicion is that the overall health benefit of regular endurance exercise will increase life expectancy by many years and on average runners will remain fitter and more mobile during old age.

Exercise Reduces Effects of Obesity Gene

Obesity Research from the USA, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine journal, has shown that exercise, or periods of vigorous activity, can reduce, or even block, the effects of a gene which known to increase the likelihood of obesity. The “obesity gene” is known as the FTO gene. Most people carry only one copy of this gene, but in subjects carrying two copies, obesity is much more likely to occur. However, in a study following a US Amish community, observations revealed that an active lifestyle appeared to remove the obesity risk associated with the FTO gene.

“Our results strongly suggest that the increased risk of obesity due to genetic susceptibility can be blunted through physical activity. Some of the genes shown to cause obesity in our modern environment may not have had this effect a few centuries ago when most people’s lives were similar to that of present-day Amish farmers.” Dr Soren Snitker, lead researcher.

This is not the first study to show that increased phyiscal exercise can greatly reduce the likelihood of obesity. Professor Andrew Hattersley, from Peninsula Medical School in Devon, who also carries out research into the FTO gene, said that this was the second study which suggested that exercise levels could have a bearing on the way this gene had an effect on obesity.

Once again it appears to be time for improved guidelines and education on both diet and exercise. If we had more intensive exercise taught in schools, then children may be better equiped to overcome the natural tendency in some to become obese.

Injury Prevention and Safety During Exercise

Although there are many benefits to be gained from being active, there are also some risks associated with exercise. However, if you choose appropriate activities and take into consideration the safety factors, the risk of an accident or injury can be reduced. Many light activities, such as walking, aqua aerobics or tai chi, bear little risk of injury. However, several factors need to be considered before you take part in more strenuous exercise, such as contact sports, long distance running and martial arts. If you think through these carefully, the risk of injury will be reduced. Some of these factors relate to general activities and some are more to do with sport.

Current health

It is always advisable for people with a specific health problem to consult a doctor before taking up an exercise programme. During exercise your body has to work harder to cope with the demands. For people with certain health problems, exercise of the wrong type or intensity could make their condition worse or put them at risk of further problems. People with asthma, diabetes, heart problems or those who are obese may need to consult a doctor before doing certain physical activities.

Cardiovascular Fitness

Whether you are exercising for health or performance reasons, it is important that you do not try to do too much exercise too soon. If you have not been very active, you should start with gentle exercise so that your body can become used to it. As your fitness improves you can gradually increase the intensity or amount of exercise that you do. In this way you will be able to increase fitness without putting too much strain on your body. If you do too much too soon then you may be injured.

It is especially important to remember this when joining fitness classes and martial arts classes after a period of inactivity. A good instructor will remind you to work at a rate that is comfortable for you, so do not feel pressurised into working at the same rate as other more experience people in the class, as this could lead to injury.

Even if you have been active you may need to improve your fitness before you are ready to take on a greater physical challenge. Often people decide to take up an activity to get fit, when they really need to be fit before they start that activity. In sports where there is physical contact between players, you could easily be injured if you come up against someone who is physically fitter and stronger than you. In outdoor activities, you need to know your limits of fitness and work within those limits. For example, if you tackle a long rock-climbing route without having the necessary level of fitness, you are more likely to fall. Although the safety rope will save you, you may still be injured during the fall.

Once you have considered these factors and have decided to do an activity, you need to think about a different set of constraints.


In some activities such as walking and swimming, it does not matter whether you wear jewellery or not. However, in most other activities it can be dangerous and put you or your opponent at risk of injury. In any activity where you come into contact with another person or are at risk from an injury, you should not wear jewellery. Many sports have rules which state that all jewellery must be removed. If you are injured and are wearing jewellery, it may cause problems.

If you hurt your finger and it swells, a ring could cause further problems and may have to be cut off. In contact sports a watch or other jewellery could cut or injure another player. In dance, jewellery could get caught on another dancer or on an item of clothing.


A warm-up is an important part of any physical activity. It helps you prepare your body physically and mentally for the activity you are about to do.

Physical state

In some activities you may need to tie long hair up or cut your nails short before participating. In netball, the umpires must check the length of the players’ fingernails before a match. This is to prevent players being scratched or cut by each other’s long nails.


It is important for physical activities involving a number of people to have clear rules and guidelines and to be well controlled so that everyone can participate safely. If everyone sticks to the rules and plays fairly, unnecessary injuries will be prevented. The officials in a match or competition have a responsibility to ensure that players abide by the rules and that the activity is safe. In contact sports it is important that opposing teams are matched according to age, body size or level of experience. That is why there are age groups for children’s activities, weight categories for martial arts and leagues with different divisions.

Some Tips on Starting Exercise

If in doubt about your health or fitness consult a doctor first. Always start a new fitness plan slowly and build up. Learn to know your capabilities and limitation and then work on improving your fitness.

Diving in at the deep end is really not the best way to improve your health, so do not sign up for a 10 mile run if you have not exercised in 10 years.

Finding an exercise class, a friend to exercise with or hiring a personal trainer are all good options. Also getting yourself kitted out with some comfortable exercise clothes and a good pair of running shoes (of you plan to run for fitness) is a good idea.

How To Exercise If You Are Very Overweight

Many people who are overweight make two mistakes when they decide to take action to deal with their weight:

  1. They believe that exercise alone is the way to lose weight
  2. They do not perform the best exercises to help them get fitter

The main goals of exercise are to improve your cardiovascular system, to burn some excess energy (body fat) and to strengthen muscles, tendons, bones and joints to make you fitter and stronger. Of course, you will also be losing fat and hopefully shedding pounds of fat too. The problem is that if you are very overweight then some exercises may be very difficult to perform well and could lead to injury. So to the main rules of starting an exercise plan:

  • Start slowly and make a plan. Do not try to run 10 miles on your first day, or expect to complete a 60 minute aerobics class at the same intensity as the instructor.
  • Focus on improving a little bit each week, so always push yourself a little harder. Either walk/jog for longer, go faster, do more circuit training exercises or attend an extra class, or just work harder in class.
  • Walking is effective exercise, especially if you are obese. If you are very overweight do not try to run as this could potentially cause too much strain on your joints, especially knees and ankles.
  • Get some new shoes if you are planning to walk/jog/run. Also buy some comfortable clothing for longer sessions to prevent chafing.
  • Balance your workouts – short more intensive cardio workout, longer cardio sessions, weight training, bodyweight training, aerobic exercises, elliptical/cross trainer, bikes, rowing. A varied routine will work more muscles, leading to greater overall fitness. The more muscles you work the fitter and stronger you get, and the more fat you burn. If you just cycle or run you fail to work your upper body, where some of the largest muscles are.
  • Always go at your own pace and never try to do more that you know you can. The one thing that deters people most from exercise is when they do too much too soon and are left feeling exhausted, sick or even get an injury.

Remember also that to lose weight diet is absolutely vital. Exercise does not really burn many calories a day. Most people who become very overweight are eating over 1000 calories a day too much. You would need to exercise for at least 2 hours every day to burn off this many calories – you are not fit enough to do that, yet.


“Personal Meanings, Values and Feelings Relating to Physical Activity and Exercise Participation in Female Undergraduates A Qualitative Exploration” by Catherine Bulley, Marie Donaghy, Andrew Payne, and Nanette Mutrie. Journal of Health Psychology, September 2009; vol. 14, 6: pp. 751-760.

A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments” by
Diana E Bowler, Lisette M Buyung-Ali, Teri M Knight and Andrew S Pullin. BMC Public Health 2010, 10:456 doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-456.

Is exercise bad for your mental health?” by Tony Barlow, 8 August, 2010

“Exercise and the brain: something to chew on” by Henriette van Praag. Published in Trends in Neurosciences, Volume 32, Issue 5, May 2009, Pages 283-290.

“Endurance Athletes May Incur Heart Damage” by Todd Neale, MedPage Today. December 06, 2011

“Exercise-induced right ventricular dysfunction and structural remodelling in endurance athletes” by La Gerche A, et al, published in the European Heart Journal 2011; DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehr397.

“Acute cardiac effects of marathon running” by Justin E. Trivax, Barry A. Franklin, James A. Goldstein, Kavitha M. Chinnaiyan, Michael J. Gallagher, Adam T. deJong, James M. Colar, David E. Haines, and Peter A. McCullough. Journal of Applied Physiology May 2010 vol. 108 no. 5 1148-1153.

Exercise-induced arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy: fact or fallacy?” an Editorial by Sanjay Sharma and Abbas Zaidi. Eur Heart J (2011) doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehr436 First published online: December 6, 2011

“Quiescent and active hippocampal neural stem cells with distinct morphologies respond selectively to physiological and pathological stimuli and ageing”. By Sebastian Lugert, Onur Basak, Philip Knuckles, Ute Haussler, Klaus Fabel, Magdalena Götz, Carola A. Haas, Gerd Kempermann, Verdon Taylor, Claudio Giachino. Published in Cell Stem Cell, May 7th 2010

Physical Activity and the Association of Common FTO Gene Variants With Body Mass Index and Obesity“. by Evadnie Rampersaud, MSPH, PhD; Braxton D. Mitchell, PhD; Toni I. Pollin, PhD; Mao Fu, PhD; Haiqing Shen, PhD; Jeffery R. O’Connell, PhD;Julie L. Ducharme, MD; Scott Hines, MD; Paul Sack, MD; Rosalie Naglieri, MD; Alan R. Shuldiner, MD; Soren Snitker, MD, PhD. Arch Intern Med. 2008;168(16):1791-1797.

8 Comments on “The Health Benefits of Regular Exercise”

  1. Hi John,

    I blog under the name of “Fitmom” and I see where you updated the blog section and it looks fantastic. However, I wanted to add a new entry and don’t see where I can log in as my user name and write a new entry. Are you not accepting new entries as of now? I’m a little confused.


  2. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi, I sent you an email with the login details. I sent it to the email address that was used on the old blog site, i.e. not the one you added here. I will forward to this email address. Once you have logged in you can update your email address. Any problems just shout!

  3. MotleyHealth says:

    Ah, the mail you have given here failed. If neither are correct send me your email address via the contact form or reply here with a working email.

  4. Sorry, John, this one is working now. I’ll let you know if I have anymore problems. Thanks.

  5. Good morning. I have a question on exercise. On a beautiful day such as today, if I were to walk for 2 hours at a moderate pace I’d burn 600 calories, roughly speaking (from what I understand). Is this not as effective as working out one hour in the gym (elliptical trainer, bike) and burning 600 cals? I sweat a lot more in the gym but does that mean it is better for me than the 2 hr walk? Thank you.

    P.S. This is one of the best fitness blogs I have come across — great work.

  6. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Ariana, this is somewhat open to debate. Steady workouts burn calories, work the muscles, get you active. Exercising outdoors, especially on a day like this, is also great. However, some people do believe that more intensive exercise is better for not only fitness but also burning off fat. Really, the most important thing as far as I am concerned is to do what is most enjoyable. I will be going for a walk later rather than sweating away in my garage gym! Enjoy the weather. You can always go running, cycling, hiking instead.

  7. Hi, I’d like to know if swimming can help fat loss. I ask this because I’ve read somewhere that it does not because people feel more hungry after swimming and eat more. But the question is that if the diet is constant i.e. not increased after swimming, is it a good calories burning exercise? Thank you!

  8. MotleyHealth says:

    Hi Ariana, all exercise aids fat loss, swimming included. Like any exercise, you have to do a lot of it and often to burn fat. Once or twice a week for 30 minutes is not going to make a huge difference. Not heard about people feeling more hungry after eating – however, if that is true, it is just a psychological effect. Hunger is natural and nobody is forced to eat.

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