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Benefits of exercise

By Dr William Bird, GP specialising in physical activity. Chair of physical activity alliance and advisor to Public Health England

There are some widely known positive effects of exercise;

Improvements in;

  • - Heart function
  • - Respiratory function
  • - Builds muscle

We now understand that benefits of exercise are much more far reaching and exercise appears to be one of the most important protective factors with respect to many diseases, including; heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia.

It is interesting that only 10% of the health benefits of exercise are thought to be due to losing weight, other effects of exercise seem to be far more important, hence the current debate over "fat or fit". Whilst having a healthy body weight is definitely important, fitness appears to be more important!

Having a sedentary lifestyle will not only reduce muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness but also appears to increase the risk of many kinds of disease due to the inflammatory effects and the acceleration of the ageing process at a cellular level, caused by inactivity.

Benefits of exercise are as follows;

1. The greatest health benefits are through anti-inflammatory effects of exercise. Important, common diseases are accelerated or caused by low grade inflammation. These include heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia. Anti-inflammatory factors are released from muscles when you exercise.

2. Reducing visceral fat (the fat which surrounds organs). It is this fat that increases many health risks. This fat is burned off preferentially to subcutaneous fat with exercise. So, exercise may not lead to a reduced waist circumference or weight loss but you will still derive health benefits.

3. Slowing down the ageing process of the body's cells due to the effect of exercise on mitochondria. The mitochondria are the ‘batteries’ of your cells. Being sedentary affects the “charge” of the mitochondria leading to mitochondrial damage and premature ageing of the cell.

4.Exercise improves insulin sensitivity . A major role of insulin is to reduce blood sugar to safe limits after eating . To avoid diabetes your body must respond appropriately to insulin (insulin sensitivity). Exercise encourages this. A sedentary lifestyle and eating excessive sugary foods leads to your body becoming insulin resistant (your body stops responding appropriately to insulin) which increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

5. Reduces blood pressure and improves HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). High blood pressure and low HDL are both risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Regular activity reduces blood pressure and increases HDL cholesterol.

6. Effects on mental health. We all know exercise releases endorphins, the ‘feel good’ hormone in our body. Exercise appears to help with anxiety and also dementia. It makes sense that activity and exercise help with a person’s mood. Also we should not under estimate the benefits of social interaction that come about from being a member of a club or team. Having friendships and social interaction have positive mental effects.


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