While most of us are aiming for max calorie burn at the gym, there are numerous other physical and psychological benefits of exercise. Before getting into those amazing benefits of exercise, it’s important to understand how much of it is needed. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least:
Aerobic activity: 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity (brisk walking, swimming, mowing the lawn) OR 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity (running, aerobic dancing), and…
Strength training: At least two sessions per week of strength training (heavy gardening, rock climbing, lifting weights).
When losing weight, calories out (from exercise and metabolism) must be greater than calories in (food consumed). While it’s important to understand calories and portions in food, it can be discouraging to focus on how few calories are burned through exercise. The good news for you is that the benefits of exercise go beyond the calorie burn:
1. Relieves Stress & Anxiety. Exercise releases norepinephrine, which can regulate and reduce your stress response. It can also improve overall mood and alleviate depression through endorphins that provide feelings of euphoria. Yoga and Pilates also focus on proper breathing, which can be a coping mechanism for short- and long-term stress.
2. Improves Learning & Memory. Working out stimulates new neural growth patterns in the brain. Exercise causes the brain to release chemicals that may prevent the breakdown of the hippocampus, which is thought to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Improves Self-Esteem & Body Image. “You never regret a workout” is a popular motivational saying, and it’s quite true! The endorphin boost and sense of accomplishment attained post-workout improves self-worth. A combination of our physical gains (Think: more pronounced muscles, less body fat) and improved mood helps us feel better about ourselves.
4. Strengthens the Heart. Our cardiovascular system contains one of the most important muscles in the body, the heart. Just like the other muscles in the body, exercise improves the heart’s overall function and efficacy. When the cardiovascular system works efficiently, it provides more oxygen, nutrients and energy to your body throughout the day. If you’re feeling low in the middle of the workday, take a brief walk to get the heart pumping and blood flowing to boost your energy and performance. According to the CDC, aerobic activity can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, increase “good” cholesterol (HDL), decrease triglycerides and lower blood pressure.
5. Builds Stronger Bones. Our bones thin as we age, putting us at greater risk for osteoporosis and bone fractures that can reduce our quality of life. Weight-bearing (high- or low-impact) and muscle-strengthening exercises build and strengthen the bones as well as the muscles that surround them. Nonimpact exercises like yoga or tai chi can improve balance, posture and flexibility, which may reduce exercise-related injuries.
6. Promotes Quality Zzz’s. Exercise has been shown to reset the circadian rhythm. After a workout, the body’s internal temperature returns to baseline and signals the brain that it’s time for sleep. Try to give yourself at least an hour or two to wind down post-exercise, otherwise those endorphins can keep you going!
7. Provides a Bonding Experience with Loved Ones. With everyone buried in technology these days, it’s nice to have a reason to get out and enjoy the real world with friends and family. Take a class, walk your dogs, play a sport or go for a jog with your workout partner. Having a network of friends also helps keep you on track. It’s much easier to come up with excuses when you only have yourself to rely on.
8. Improves Mood. Exercising outdoors can help ensure adequate production of vitamin D. This vitamin has been linked to cognitive function, and inadequate levels have been linked to mood swings. Catching a few rays while exercising (with sun protection) may actually lessen depressive symptoms.
9. Increases Metabolism. Working out can burn calories, but did you know it can also help burn them while you’re sleeping? Muscle cells require more energy (calories) in comparison to fat cells at every point throughout the day. The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you’ll burn. As we age, we lose muscle mass and become less efficient at protein metabolism. This is why strength training is so important for older adults.
10. Improves Digestion. Exercise can relieve constipation and help those with digestive disorders like inflammatory bowel disease and liver disease. It can also decrease the risk for colon cancer and ulcers. Stress is another contributor to digestive issues, which can be reduced with regular exercise.
11. Reduces Disease Risk. Exercise can actually help prevent diseases like prevent Type 2 diabetes, stroke, metabolic syndrome and even some forms of cancer. Because exercise burns energy (or calories), it makes the body more efficient at using glucose (a type of sugar) and clearing it from the blood. If you already have diabetes or prediabetes, exercise can help regulate blood sugar levels. It’s just another benefit of taking a stroll after dinner!
12. Decreases Appetite. For many, exercise can be an appetite suppressant. While this may be a physical result for some, it can also be mental. After torching all those calories in the workout, exercise may actually encourage smarter food choices.
There are so many options out there for fitness. If a crowded gym isn’t your thing, try boot camp, yoga, Pilates, cardio dance, aerial silks, rock climbing, kickboxing, CrossFit, Spinning or join a group that trains for half-marathons if running is more your speed.
Don’t have time to fit in a full workout? Incorporate fitness into your daily activities. Take the stairs, walk during your lunch break, walk and talk on those long phone calls, stretch on the floor while you type away, park in the farthest spot at the grocery store and bicep curl those grocery bags. My favorite way to kill some time is to do some squats with a kid, dog, cat, husband or whatever you can find while waiting for those veggies to steam.
And remember the benefits of regular exercise go far beyond the calorie burn!