How Exercise Can Improve Your Waistline and Health

Man running in the forest

Micky Wiswedel / Stocksy United

What if there was one thing you could do to live longer, have more energy, potentially avoid heart disease, cancer, stroke, and injury —all while boosting your sex life, mood, self-confidence, and body image. Would you do it? That one thing does exist. Unfortunately, there are too many of us who aren't taking full advantage of it.

Exercise is one of the few activities you can do that can improve every aspect of your life, body, and mind.

It's normal to struggle to find the motivation to exercise regularly, but thinking about how it can improve your life may be just what you need to take that first step.

Exercise Helps You Lose Weight and Prevent Obesity

When combined with proper diet and nutrition, exercise can be an important tool for weight loss and maintenance. The calories you burn during cardio and strength training help you lose weight, prevent future weight gain, and avoid obesity. (Though it is important to note that some research has shown exercise plays a smaller role in substantial weight loss than diet, and that response can vary among individuals).

This is critical since being overweight or obese can put you at risk for a variety of health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, gallstones, depression, low self-esteem, and more.

Exercise Protects You From Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American adults. Exercise not only protects you from heart disease, but it can also actually change how your heart works, making it stronger, more efficient, and better able to function as you age.

What's even better is that a little exercise, regardless of whether you lose weight, can make a big difference. Exercising for your heart can start with as little as 15 to 20 minutes of exercise most days of the week (though the American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week). Being active can also help you avoid things that strain your heart, like being overweight, having high blood pressure, or being highly stressed. Exercise can even help you recover from heart attacks and prevent or reduce the risk of future heart problems.

Exercise Supports Diabetes Prevention and Management

Diabetes can be one of the most frustrating, and of course, concerning health problems. In the simplest terms, diabetes affects how the body digests food. When your body is unable to break down sugar, glucose levels will spike and can lead to a number of health problems including nerve damage, kidney failure, vision problems, heart disease, and depression.

The leading risk factor for getting type 2 diabetes is obesity, which is why exercise is such a powerful preventative measure. Exercise also helps manage blood glucose levels and enhance insulin sensitivity. In fact, a 2009 study showed that high-intensity interval training may improve insulin action in sedentary adults. Another study found that adding muscle helps manage glucose levels and decrease the risk of complications due to diabetes.

Exercise Improves Your Sex Life

Did you know that something as simple as hitting the treadmill could have an effect on your libido? It may sound like an infomercial promise, but exercise can indeed improve your sex life. There's a long list of the benefits exercisers may experience in the bedroom, including:

  • Enhanced sexual performance and pleasure
  • Increased sex drive; more frequent sex
  • Increased sexual satisfaction
  • Fewer problems with erectile dysfunction

A healthy exercise program can also contribute to higher self-esteem and more confidence—two characteristics that draw people to you, both physically and emotionally. And don't forget, sex burns calories, too. One study showed that 30 minutes of sexual activity could burn anywhere from 70 to 100 calories in healthy adults.

Exercise Lowers High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, which is considered anything over 140/90 mm Hg, can contribute to a number of health problems, including coronary heart disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure. Losing weight and watching your salt and alcohol intake are the best ways to lower your blood pressure, and studies have shown that regular exercise (ie: 3 to 5 moderate-intensity workouts a week; 30 to 60 minutes each) can help reduce high blood pressure. Regular exercise may even protect you from developing high blood pressure, which can be a problem as we age.

Exercise Makes You Smarter

Exercise not only strengthens your body, but it can also strengthen your mind. One study found that older adults who performed moderate exercise reduced their odds of developing mild cognitive impairment by 30–40%.

Research has shown that exercise can keep minds sharp because it improves circulation throughout the body and brain, which boosts attention and the ability to concentrate.

Exercise may protect us from developing Alzheimer's disease. A 2006 study found that older adults who exercise at least 3 times a week were less likely to develop dementia.

Exercise can even make you more productive at work. People who exercise during the day perform better, manage their time more efficiently, and are mentally sharper.

Exercise Gives You More Energy

It may be ironic, but if you've ever felt too tired to work out, exercise can give you a much needed boost. Getting enough sleep, reducing stress, and eating a nutritious diet are all important for energy, but one major factor is movement. A 2008 study showed that exercise increases feelings of energy and lessens feelings of fatigue. Exercise also teaches the body how to produce more energy, making it more efficient at burning fat.

How to Get Started With Exercise

  • Start small: Move more all day—take the stairs, stretch, or take short walks.
  • Warm up: Give your body more time to make the transition to exercise by gradually increasing your pace.
  • Stay hydrated: Dehydration can contribute to feelings of fatigue.

Exercise Reduces LDL Cholesterol and Raises HDL Cholesterol

There are a number of lifestyle changes you can make that can help reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) and raise good cholesterol (HDL), including eating healthy, quitting smoking, and regular exercise. Being sedentary is a major risk factor for high cholesterol, but a 2001 study found that brisk walking or jogging about 15 to 20 miles a week can lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and raise HDL (good cholesterol). Other research has shown that working at or above 65–80% of your maximum heart rate, which is a higher intensity, is an effective way to raise HDL and lower LDL.

Interval training is one way to introduce high-intensity training into your workouts. By alternating work intervals with recovery time, you get the benefit of high-intensity training without the discomfort of long, hard workouts.

Exercise Decreases Symptoms of Depression

Depression is frustratingly common for many of us, and while there are medications and therapies that can help, exercise is another method of treatment that can provide relief. Research has shown that exercise can help you fight mild to moderate depression because it:

  • Lifts your mood and gives you energy
  • Offers distraction from your worries
  • Helps you feel more confident and in control
  • Releases feel-good hormones while reducing stress

Any type of exercise, including cardioweight-training, and mind/body activities like yoga, can work.

Even clinically depressed people can find help through exercise. A 2018 study found that exercise had the potential to reduce the risk of mortality in clinically depressed patients.

Exercise Reduces Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety can take a toll on your body, mind, and emotional well-being, but exercise can help even if you're experiencing chronic stress.

Studies show that consistent exercisers manage their stress more effectively and tend to exhibit lower levels of stress than people who don't exercise. Exercise is also a great way to prevent stress, especially if you consistently exercise at least 3 times a week for 20 or more minutes.

Anxiety is another disorder that often accompanies stress and depression, leaving you feeling agitated, uneasy, and struggling to calm down. Studies show that aerobic exercise is one way to reduce anxiety, although you'll want to experiment with different intensity levels to find what works best for you.

Exercise Reduces Your Risk of Stroke

Another health problem that can potentially be prevented with exercise is stroke. Strokes can happen when blood can't circulate to the brain, and major risk factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking. Exercise can help with both high blood pressure and diabetes, and it may actually reduce your risk of experiencing a stroke. Research has shown that people who are moderately active have a 20% lower risk of stroke and, if you're more active, those numbers only get better. Exercise can mitigate those contributing factors by pumping fresh oxygen into the bloodstream, contributing to better circulation.​

Exercise can also help people recovering from a stroke. One study found that stroke survivors who participated in a walking program were able to walk faster and longer and had better mobility than non-exercisers.

Exercise Reduces Your Risk of Certain Types of Cancer

Another great benefit of exercise is a reduced risk of certain types of cancer, including colon cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, and multiple myeloma. A 2003 study found that moderate to vigorous exercise offers the best protection and that exercisers have a 30–40% reduced risk for colon cancer as opposed to non-exercisers. 

Another study suggests that modifying our lifestyles can reduce the threat of cancer. By eating a healthy diet, staying at a healthy weight, exercising, watching your alcohol intake and quitting smoking, you may actually protect yourself from some types of cancer as you get older.

Exercise Helps Protect Against Osteoporosis

Bone health is a major concern for women, especially those who are postmenopausal. A number of things can contribute to osteoporosis, including smoking, drinking too much, and a family history of osteoporosis, but one preventable cause is being sedentary.

Experts agree that children who exercise regularly build strong bones and carry that strength into adulthood, giving them some protection against osteoporosis. As adults, we can maintain strong bones and, perhaps, build stronger bones by choosing weight-bearing activities like running, walking, aerobics or any other movement that involves impact. High-intensity strength training is another way to build stronger bones, all while building lean muscle tissue and burning calories.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends regularly incorporating high- and low-impact weigh-bearing exercises to increase bone density.

Exercise Boosts Self-Esteem, Body Image, and Confidence

Many studies show that exercise not only gives you energy, but it can also actually improve self-esteem and confidence. This isn't surprising when you consider that how we feel about ourselves is often wrapped up in how we look, how satisfied we are with ourselves, and how competent we perceive ourselves to be. Exercise can improve all of those things. By improving your strength, endurance, balance, and coordination, you'll inevitably feel stronger and more confident.

A 2009 analysis published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that even a small amount of exercise can improve body image. Researchers reviewed more than 50 studies and found that people who exercise are less critical of their bodies than non-exercisers, regardless of their weight loss results.

Exercise Boosts Your Mood

If you're feeling cranky, one of the best things you can do to improve your mood is exercise. A 2017 review shows that a single session of aerobic exercise can reduce tension, fatigue, and anger while increasing feelings of vitality and energy. Cardio seems to be one of the best ways to boost your mood, but other activities can work as well.

Exercise Protects Older Adults From Injury

Falling is a major cause of injury, and sometimes, even death among older people. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that falls account for 95% of hip fractures in older populations. Beyond aging, we can fall and hurt ourselves because of loss of muscle, balance, and coordination. If you don't exercise, that loss of muscle can contribute to weakness and inflexibility, which can affect your ability to move around with strength and confidence.

A 2011 analysis shows that older adults can prevent falls and maintain a higher level of functioning with exercise. Working on your balanceflexibilityendurance, and strength will improve your quality of life as you get older while protecting you from injury.

Exercise Helps You Live Better and Longer

If you've ever wished there were such a thing as a fountain of youth, studies have shown that regular exercise can actually add years to your life—regardless of how old you are when you begin exercising. Even better, those extra years are less likely to include disability, which means a higher quality of life as you age.

Exercise Helps Treat and Manage Back Pain

Back pain is a common problem, and because there are different causes, there isn't one therapy that works for every person. However, for those with back pain from bad posture or too much sitting, stretching and strengthening the back may be one way to reduce pain. Researchers are also studying yoga as a helpful treatment. A 2005 study found that Iyengar yoga reduced pain, disability, and the use of pain medication in study participants.

Exercise Keeps You Fit for Seasonal Activities

If you like to ski in the winter or hike in the summer, regular, year-round exercise is a must for giving your body a strong foundation for these kinds of irregular activities. There are a number of things we do that depend on the season and the weather, which can set you up for an injury if you don't maintain a base level of fitness. Regular exercise can give you the stamina, strength, and endurance you need for seasonal activities like shoveling snow, raking leaves, long bike rides or canoe trips, backpacking, skiing or snowboarding.

Exercise Helps Your Kids Stay Active

Whether your kids start exercising now and continue into adulthood often depends on you leading by example. A 2010 review of more than 11,000 studies detailed the health benefits associated with regular exercise in school-aged children. The review found that even moderate amounts of physical activity reaped benefits among children who were at-risk for obesity, with rigorous intensity providing the greatest benefits. The most positive associations were found among aerobic-based and weight-bearing activities.

Being a good role model means encouraging your children to engage in regular physical activity so that they have a better shot at a healthy, active future.

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