News & Perspectives

The Many Benefits of Exercise

Everyone knows that they should exercise. The newest statistics on obesity in the U.S. are reaching epic proportions. The National Institutes of Health estimate that more than 61% of the adults in the United States are overweight or obese. In the throes of our chaotic everyday lives though, exercise often gets bumped to the bottom of the “to do” list or even eliminated altogether. Why should we bend over backwards to incorporate another commitment into our already hectic day? The answer is simple. Exercise and physical activity are beneficial for not only the body, but the mind, spirit and soul. If you make the commitment to carve out a little time for exercise everyday you have the opportunity to improve your life and the lives of your loved ones in innumerable ways.

Exercise Prevents Disease

Exercise plays a key role in preventing the two highest causes of mortality in the U.S. today. First, exercise prevents cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association asserts that cardiovascular disease was responsible for 960,000 deaths in America last year, accounting for over 41.5% of all deaths. Regular exercise lowers blood pressure and increases HDL levels in the blood.(1) HDL is the “good” cholesterol carrying protein found in the blood that has been linked to a decreased risk of coronary disease. Even moderate physical activity has been shown to have a beneficial effect in preventing heart disease, heart attack and stroke.(2)

Researchers have also implicated exercise as a preventative measure against the development of several cancers. Strong evidence exists for the link between exercise and the prevention of breast and colon cancer.(3,4,5,6) Physically active women show a 20 -30% reduced risk of developing breast cancer.5,6 Exercise can help prevent colon cancer by 30 – 40%.6 Recent studies are also starting to show beneficial gains in the battle against prostate, endometrial, and lung cancer.(7.8,9) The mechanism by which exercise works to prevent these conditions is largely unknown. However, the National Cancer Institute and researchers from across the globe continue to enumerate the many types of cancer that are prevented by physical fitness. The list grows longer every day.

Exercise Strengthens the Human Machine

Exercise not only keeps you healthy on the cellular level, it also works wonders on your gross anatomy. Weight bearing and cardiovascular exercise strengthens your heart, lungs, bones and muscles. (10) This becomes even more important as we age. Physical activity protects against falling and bone fractures in older adults.(11,12) Research also suggests that exercise may help control joint swelling and pain caused by arthritis.(13,14)The maxim in nature is “use it or lose it.” Exercise helps preserve strength, agility, and independence as we age.

Exercise Offers a Mental Boost

The benefits of exercise are not only physically tangible; exercise has a profound effect on your mental state as well. Regular physical activity helps you cope with stress. The commitment you make to yourself and your health improves your self-image. Exercise can help counter anxiety and depression by releasing pleasure chemicals called endorphins in our brains.(5,15) Research even suggests that physical fitness can make you more mentally alert. These early studies found that animals who regularly exercised grew more blood vessels that supply the brain cells with oxygen and sugar rich blood.(16) They also found that exercise stimulates production of a substance that encourages neurons to grow and connect. (17)It seems like a paradox but, exercise can both relax and sharpen your mind. By including group exercise with friends or sports teams into your routine, you can also use exercise to strengthen your bonds with others. Connecting with friends and family is a key aspect of good emotional health.

Get Ready – Now Go!

Now that we have explored the many benefits of exercise here are a few tips in how you can incorporate physical activity into your daily life for optimum health.

 Where can I find an exercise program that is tailored to my needs? The most expedient way to get an exercise program that is both safe and specific to your goals is to consult a personal trainer/exercise specialist. A personal trainer can take measurements of your baseline physical health and work with you to create an exercise program that targets your specific needs and wants. With a little professional advice and encouragement workouts and routines can be de-mystified and become accessible to anyone – even those who have never set foot in a gym!

 How much should I exercise? – The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that to attain a high level of fitness, you need to gradually work up to exercising at a moderate intensity most days of the week for 30 minutes or longer.

 How can I stick with my chosen exercise program? Pick something that you enjoy. Class activities offer support and encouragement to those just starting a new exercise regimen. Remember your routine need not start out at a vigorous pace. Try yoga classes to help you stretch and become more flexible. Tai Chi offers a low impact workout that promotes physical and mental well-being. There are many different exercise modalities to choose from – Explore!

 When can I expect to see results? This varies from person to person and is influenced by your genetic make-up as well as the level of physical fitness you are at when you begin your routine. A well-toned physique does not appear overnight. The beneficial effects exercise has on stress, anxiety, and depression can be felt almost immediately. These good vibes will help keep you on track as you head for larger physical gains.

A Word of Caution

The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your doctor before beginning any vigorous exercise program. Please see your doctor if any of the following conditions apply:

 You have been previously diagnosed with a heart condition
 You experience pains or pressure in your mid-chest area, left neck, shoulder or arm
 You have experienced chest pain in the last month
 You experience loss of consciousness
 You experience breathlessness after mild exertion
 You are currently on medication to control your blood pressure or a heart condition
 You have bone or joint problems – your doctor can help tailor your exercise routine to prevent causing added stress to these areas
 You have a medical condition or other physical reason not mentioned here that may need special consideration when designing an exercise program, such as insulin-dependent diabetes
 You are middle-aged or older and have not been physically active and wish to begin a relatively vigorous exercise program


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3. Lagerros YT, Hsieh SF, Hsieh CC. Physical activity in adolescence and young adulthood and breast cancer risk: a quantitative review. Eur J Cancer Prev. 2004 Feb;13(1):5-12.
4. Moderate exercise reduces breast cancer risk in older women. Mayo Clin Health Lett. 2004 Feb;22(2):4.
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7. Torti DC, Matheson GO. Exercise and prostate cancer. Sports Med. 2004;34(6):363-9.
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10. Chan K, Qin L, Lau M, Woo J, Au S, Choy W, Lee K, Lee S. A randomized, prospective study of the effects of Tai Chi Chun exercise on bone mineral density in postmenopausal women. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2004 May;85(5):717-22.
11. Tsang WW, Hui-Chan CW. Effect of 4- and 8-wk intensive Tai Chi Training on balance control in the elderly. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004 Apr;36(4):648-57.
12. Thornton EW, Sykes KS, Tang WK. Health benefits of Tai Chi exercise: improved balance and blood pressure in middle-aged women. Health Promot Int. 2004 Mar;19(1):33-8.
13. Hughes SL, Seymour RB, Campbell R, Pollak N, Huber G, Sharma L. Impact of the fit and strong intervention on older adults with osteoarthritis. Gerontologist. 2004 Apr;44(2):217-28.
14. Kettunen JA, Kujala UM. Exercise therapy for people with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2004 Jun;14(3):138-42.
15. Thoren P, Floras JS, Hoffmann P, Seals DR. Endorphins and exercise: physiological mechanisms and clinical implications. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1990 Aug;22(4):417-28.
16. Abstract. Presented at: Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting; New Orleans, LA. November 8, 2003.
17. Adlard PA, Cotman CW. Voluntary exercise protects against stress-induced decreases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor protein expression. Neuroscience. 2004;124(4):985-92.

For More Information

American Council on Exercise
Phone: (800) 825-3636
Internet Address:

Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, NCCDPHP, CDC
Phone: (770) 488-5820
Internet Address:

National Women’s Health Information Center
Phone: (800) 994-9662
Internet Address:

Date Published: 07/07/2004
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