The benefits of exercise and how to get started

We all know that exercise is “good” for us, but have you really stopped to ask why it’s so great? There are obvious benefits like the fact that exercise burns calories, but we would argue that the calorie-burning benefit is actually one of the least important ones. This article will explore some of the mental and physical benefits of weight loss, and give you some quick tips to start exercising. 

Physical Benefits of Exercise 

Exercise & mortality

To begin with, whether or not you exercise has a huge impact on mortality, which put simply means more exercise can extend your life. Specifically, people who exercise regularly have half the risk of premature death as those who do not exercise—regardless of how much they weigh. Of course, that’s not to say that weight isn’t important, as there are a number of other health indicators beyond risk of death to account for, but it’s still striking just how important exercise is.

Exercise, blood sugar, & type 2 diabetes

When it comes to diabetes, exercise plays a significant role in controlling blood glucose. For those with prediabetes, an exercise routine can help to significantly reduce the risk of progressing to type 2 diabetes. Even those already diagnosed with type 2 diabetes experience improved glycaemic control when they exercise. At Habitual, our goal is that anyone with type 2 diabetes goes into and maintains remission from the, and exercise is clearly a key part of making this a reality.

We don’t need go into the details of every disease, but it’s worth noting that studies have shown exercise to be beneficial in preventing heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and osteoporosis (i.e. bone fractures)!

The importance of exercise to maintaining weight loss

Exercise & metabolism

Importantly, exercise is truly one of the keys to maintaining the weight loss. This all comes down the the impact that exercise has on your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), or the number of calories you burn just by being alive (or even more simply, what most of us think of as our metabolism). 

Weight loss can decrease your BMR, as a smaller, lighter body will burn fewer calories at rest than the body you had prior to losing weight. This can unfortunately lead to weight regain if you don’t put other healthy habits into practice—as many who have attempted weight loss in the past can attest to. 

Perhaps the most important of those healthy habits is exercise, which increases your muscle mass—and more muscle means a higher BMR. A higher BMR means you’ll burn more calories without exerting any extra effort. Pretty great, huh? 

So interestingly, while most of us think that exercise is important because it burns calories, this is actually of lesser importance: Exercise’s main function in weight maintenance lies in the impact it has on our metabolism. Metabolism is so important to maintaining weight loss that we’ve written an entire article on it here!

Exercise & hunger

All of these long-term benefits are great, but what about something more short-term to motivate you to get exercising, now? What if you knew that exercise can have an immediate (positive!) impact on your hunger levels?

In one study which examined brisk walking, participants were monitored for seven hours after exercise, and no difference in ghrelin (the “hungry” hormone) was observed. And this was supported by the participants’ actual behaviour—they didn’t consume more than those who did not exercise. This means that when you exercise, you’ll be burning more calories, without feeling more hungry. This runs counter to the common misunderstanding that exercise makes you more hungry and thus, can be a cause of weight gain.

More strenuous activity may even decrease hunger levels by decreasing ghrelin levels as well as increasing levels of peptide YY, a hormone that tells your brain that you’re full. In a previous article, we discussed using distraction mechanisms to help us overcome addictive urges towards food; now we find out that choosing exercise as your distraction will physiologically ensure your urge subsides!

Exercise has long-term physical benefits to our quality and length of life, and short-term physical benefits to maintaining weight loss. Leaving the physical side, let’s look at the impact exercise has on our brain.

‍Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

When it comes to neurological disorders, exercise has been shown to be a key risk reduction factor. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia significantly, no matter your age. There is also some evidence that exercise can help prevent Parkinson’s. How does this miracle drug do it? Through better heart health, which leads to more blood flow to the brain, as well as reduced inflammation and decreased levels of stress hormones (all wonderful things!).

Whilst this is an amazing long-term goal of exercise, what are the short-term effects of exercise on mental health?

In one study examining more than 1M people, exercise of all types was definitively shown to lower the mental health burden, leading to fewer self-reported “poor mental health” days. The maximum benefit was achieved for exercise duration of 45 minutes, 3-5 times per week. That’s just over two hours per week—which even the busiest of us should be able to spare for the massive benefits that exercise provides!

Looking specifically at anxiety and depression, there is evidence that short bouts of physical activity (like a 10-minute walk) can help to relieve symptoms of anxiety. Why not try a walk around the block next time you’re feeling anxious? Further, a more regular exercise routine can function as a natural antidepressant as well as reduce the risk of developing depression or anxiety in the future.

You may have already known all of this, but it’s worth reiterating the importance as you discover an exercise routine that is right for you. Even if you don’t struggle with anxiety or depression, we all have good and bad days, and we’d encourage you to look for links between exercise and your moods: Maintaining a journal may help you to notice if there’s a correlation between the two.‍

How to Start Exercising: Habitual’s Top Tips 

Have a routine, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t always stick to it

Some exercise is better than none, so even if you have a super busy week and can only get out for a walk once, that’s better than nothing. In the same way that a small slip-up from healthy eating doesn’t mean all your hard work has gone to waste, the same applies here: Just because you give yourself a break, go on holiday, or have an off week doesn’t mean that everything’s gone out the door. The more important thing is getting back on track.

Shoot for 2.5 hours per week

Most health benefits occur with at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking. That’s just three, 50-minute walks (or your choice of activity) per week. If you’re pressed for time, think creatively about ways you could incorporate exercise into your weeks: Perhaps by walking to do an errand instead of driving, by heading to the gym over your lunch break, or by scheduling catchups with friends over a walk instead of tea.

The only “better” exercise is one that you enjoy more

People love to rave about the new miracle workouts they’ve discovered, but it’s far more important to exercise—no matter the type—than it is to do a specific workout. Sure, different types of exercise have different benefits, but first get into a routine of doing an exercise you love—then you can worry about optimising for different outcomes. Both aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises are beneficial for your health, so choose the exercise type that you enjoy most. If that’s a few different types of exercise, go for it! Don’t feel you need to stick to one method.

Make it a group activity

Exercise benefits health regardless of age, race, or ethnic group. Involve your family, friends, coworkers, strangers… exercise is good for everyone, so there’s no reason not to spread the love. Building an exercising community will help you feel a sense of togetherness, which can help you get motivated on days when you’re feeling more like staying on the couch.

Don’t let cost be a blocker

There are tons of free workout videos online, and many activities (like walking, running, or cycling) are virtually free. Cost can be a convenient excuse if you’re not feeling up to it one day, but don’t let it be: If you’re taking a day off, make that a conscious choice rather than giving into a lazy urge and then feeling guilty after the face.