14 Health Benefits of Exercise That Make It Worth Your Time
Working out tends to get a bad rap. Exercise often gets framed in the context of weight loss and diet culture and as a way to conform your body to society's constantly shifting expectations. Going to the gym stops being something we do for ourselves and becomes a source of pride or shame, or a status symbol of self-care. In creating all this dialogue around fitness, we lose the point of why exercise is important in the first place: it's good for you! And in so many ways that have nothing to do with weight loss or looks.
Truthfully, the health benefits of exercise are plentiful — so much so that they're hard to count. Exercise boosts your heart and bone health as well as your overall longevity and helps you build healthier habits. There are lots of powerful benefits of exercise for mental health, too, such as helping you live a happier, more connected, and less stressful life.
To illustrate our point, we collected 14 of the most notable health benefits of exercise below, from improving your sleep and boosting your mood to supercharging your immune system. Read on to find plenty of reasons to work up a sweat.
Benefit of Exercise: Better Sleep
Turns out, winding yourself up with a workout during the day can help you wind down later when it's time to sleep. According to a systematic review of studies on sleep and exercise, both moderate aerobic activity and high-intensity resistance training can boost your sleep quality as well as help you fall asleep faster. And another study found that exercising during stressful exam periods helped college students sleep better and reduced stress overall. Finally, increased exercise has been linked to improvements in several sleep parameters, including total sleep time, deep sleep, and REM sleep latency (the time from the sleep onset to the first stage of REM sleep).
Just don't hit the gym right before you hit the pillow. Aerobic exercise causes the body to release endorphins, which can create a level of activity in the brain that keeps some people awake, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep. If you're struggling to fall asleep after evening workouts, make sure you're exercising at least one or two hours before going to bed, giving your body enough time to wind down.
Benefit of Exercise: Boosted Mood
Speaking of endorphins, you've probably heard that exercise can boost your mood — and that's true. Exercise is one of the easiest ways to score elevated levels of endorphins, hormones your body releases when it feels pain or stress that improve your sense of well-being, according to the Cleveland Clinic. These hormones — there are more than 20 different types — are what's behind the much-discussed "runner's high." They're strong pain relievers and also improve your mood. For that reason, exercise has been correlated with lower rates of depression and anxiety and, in the long term, people who exercise have been shown to have generally lower stress responses to stressful events.
Benefit of Exercise: Reduced Depression
There are a lot of exercise benefits for mental health, but evidence shows that being active can help with depression specifically. One study proved this exercise benefit by examining the effects of a combined meditation and exercise routine: Twice a week, people with severe depression took part in 30 minutes of meditation and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise over the course of eight weeks. The result? Improved mood and decreased depression. (They tried this same method on patients who weren't depressed, and they felt better, too.) Notably, the participants experienced neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) — something that's typically inhibited when someone has depression. Specifically, the growth of new neural cells in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and mood) plays an integral part in how your mind fights depression and controls mood — and aerobic exercise can greatly increase the number of cells produced there. Depression is complicated, but the good news is that exercise may help people manage the symptoms in addition to offering a quick mood boost.
Benefit of Exercise: Improved Cognition
Set down the Sudoku and reach for your sneakers. Exercise can boost your memory, learning skills, problem solving, and more, per the CDC. Many studies have suggested the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are larger in volume in people who exercise than in people who don't, according to Harvard Health Publishing. As a result, exercise has been shown to counteract normal and disease-related aging. So next time you hit the gym, know that you're not just strengthening your body, but you're strengthening your brain, too.
Benefit of Exercise: Stronger Bones
Prioritizing your bone health when you're younger can make a big difference in bone density as you age. "To keep bones strong, the body breaks down old bone and replaces it with new bone tissue," Rachel Prairie, CPT, manager of training operations at Anytime Fitness, explains. "But around age 30, bone mass stops increasing. In your 40s and 50s, you slowly start losing more bone than you make. Exercise can help increase bone density when you're younger and stave off osteoporosis."
Weight-bearing and resistance exercises like walking, hiking, jogging, and lifting weights that force you to work against gravity are the best kind for strengthening bones. That's because mechanical stress to the bones (presented via exercise) "promotes bone remodeling and in turn maintains or can even improve bone mineral density," says Grace Taylor, PT, DPT.
Benefit of Exercise: A Healthier Heart
People who are more active tend to develop less coronary heart disease than their sedentary counterparts, Taylor shares. In fact, as many as 250,000 deaths per year in the United States can be attributed to a lack of regular physical activity, according to a review published in the American Heart Association's scientific journal, Circulation. Exercising positively affects several risk factors that contribute to heart disease, including reducing blood pressure and "bad" cholesterol, and increasing good cholesterol and insulin sensitivity. Your heart powers your body, and working out is one of the best ways to take good care of it.
Benefit of Exercise: Better Habits
"Exercise is often a gateway for people to create additional healthy habits in their lives," Prairie says. "Simply developing the act of consistent movement opens the door for more."
For example, after a workout, you might be encouraged to seek out a healthier breakfast than usual or may feel empowered to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Getting into a consistent workout schedule can positively influence other areas of your life, like getting enough sleep so you can wake up early for the gym, or prepping a healthy, protein-packed meal for the week that will complement all the strength training you have planned.
Benefit of Exercise: More Energy
If you consistently feel too tired to work out, it might be time to flip the narrative. Research has shown that exercise can actually help give you more energy, rather than deplete it, especially if you do so on a consistent basis. And you don't have to push yourself to the brink to get energized from exercise; one study showed that the participants who reported the biggest improvement in fighting fatigue were actually those who biked at a low-intensity pace. So the next time you feel too tired to even reach for the snooze button, try hitting the gym instead. As exercise improves endurance and heart health, it's hypothesized that your energy improves because you have more endurance to get through the day.
Benefit of Exercise: Less Stress
Stress can lead us to seek out unhealthy coping mechanisms (think: doom scrolling, drinking alcohol, etc.) that only increase feelings of negativity in the long run. Thankfully, exercise is nowhere on that list. For many people, pounding the pavement, jumping in the pool, or hitting the dance studio is a great way to relieve stress, and can help your body react well to stress in the long run, too.
Benefit of Exercise: More Muscle
Exercise builds and strengthens muscle, which benefits you in both the short and long term. Exercise is a well-established countermeasure against muscle aging, Taylor says. It can significantly attenuate, and even prevent, declines in muscle metabolism and function, which means you stay stronger, longer. Maintaining muscle strength can aid in injury prevention and make daily tasks easier. "As people age, they lose muscle mass and strength, a condition known as sarcopenia, and strength training is one of the best ways to help slow that decline," Prairie adds.
Benefit of Exercise: Human Connection
Calling all social butterflies! Working out in social settings is a great way to meet people and enjoy human connection, whether you're collectively cursing your spin instructor for another round of hills or saying "Namaste" in perfect sync. Exercising with others has been shown to have more positive effects on well-being than exercising alone. Additionally, social relationships are one of the strongest happiness predictors.
With groups like The November Project, the fitness community spans far and wide, and no matter what style of exercise you prefer, you're sure to find birds (butterflies) of a feather who want to go to class with you (and maybe even get brunch afterward).
Benefit of Exercise: Clearer Skin
We'll say it one more time for the people in the back: the most important benefits of exercise aren't about how you look. However, no one ever complained about a clearer complexion. Exercise increases blood flow, which "provides oxygen and nutrients to the skin cells and clears impurities from the skin," according to the American Academy of Dermatology. The relieved stress should reduce the occurrence of stress-related skin problems (i.e. acne, eczema), too.
Benefit of Exercise: Improved Immunity
Who hasn't thought about boosting their immunity over the last few years? According to a 2019 research review, moderate-intensity exercise can help promote cellular immunity by increasing the immune cell circulation in your body. This helps your body better prepare for a future infection by detecting it earlier. Additionally, there's a lower incidence, intensity of symptoms, and mortality of viral infections in people who are regularly physically active. While you shouldn't drag yourself to the gym if you're feeling ill, think of your workout routine as one more piece to include in your immunity toolbox as far as prevention is concerned.
Benefit of Exercise: Scheduled Self-Care
Exercise is self-care in so many ways, including many of the reasons listed above. But for lots of people, the best part of exercising is that it blocks out time for you. Whenever you book a group class, start up a YouTube workout, or even just take a few minutes before bed to stretch, exercise is an explicit act of self-care that's for you and you only. It gives you time to reconnect with your body, check in, and take a break from the hustle to take care of yourself.