The 25 Most Significant Health Benefits of Physical Activity & Exercise

Posted: December 1, 2011 in Fitness
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Common health issues that can be positively affected, prevented or controlled by exercise.

People of all ages can improve the quality of their lives and reduce the risks of developing coronary heart disease, hypertension, some cancers and type 2 diabetes with ongoing participation in moderate physical activity and exercise. Daily exercise will also enhance one’s mental well-being and promote healthy musculoskeletal function throughout life. Although habitual physical activity is an attainable goal on the path to a healthier life, more than half of U.S. adults do not get ≥ 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day at least 5 days per week (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] 2007a).

A formidable challenge facing many personal fitness trainers (PFTs) and other health and fitness professionals is finding new ways of motivating people to improve their well-being through consistent participation in physical activity and exercise. As indicated, significant health benefits can be obtained by engaging in moderate amounts of physical activity on most, and preferably all, days of the week (American College of Sports Medicine [ACSM] 2006). Fitness programs involving progressively increasing intensities of exercise will elicit even greater cardioprotective benefits (Swain & Franklin 2006). There is a growing understanding of how certain levels of physical activity may positively affect cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, respiratory and endocrine function, as well as mental health. This article sums up the evidence on 25 significant benefits linking physical activity to health enhancement. Some of the benefits have been grouped together because of their physiological or metabolic associations.

1. Cardiovascular Disease

The leading health-related cause of mortality for men and women in the U.S. is cardiovascular disease (ACSM 2006). Meaningful cardiovascular health benefits may be attained with long-term participation in cardiovascular exercise. How much exercise is enough? ACSM sought to address that question properly last year when it updated its stance on the recommended quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, and flexibility, in healthy adults (ACSM 2006) (see the sidebar “New 2006 ACSM Position Stand on General Exercise Programming” below). Higher levels of cardiovascular fitness are associated with a 50% reduction in CVD risk in men (Myers et al. 2004). Myers and colleagues demonstrated that increasing physical activity to a total of at least 1,000 kilocalories per week is associated with a 20% reduction of mortality in men. Hu and colleagues (2004) showed that physically inactive middle-aged women (engaging in less than 1 hour of exercise per week) doubled their risk of mortality from CVD compared with their physically active female counterparts. It should be emphasized that Haskell (2003) notes that CVD is a multifactor process and that “not smoking, being physically active, eating a heart-healthy diet, staying reasonably lean and avoiding stress and depression are the major components of an effective CVD prevention program.”

2–4. Diabetes, Insulin Sensitivity and Glucose Metabolism

Diabetes has reached endemic proportions, affecting 170 million individuals worldwide (Stumvoll, Goldstein & van Haeften 2005). One unfortunate health consequence of physical inactivity is the weakening of the body’s insulin regulatory mechanisms. Elevated insulin and blood glucose levels are characteristic features involved in the development of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. When insulin function starts breaking down, the body’s blood sugar levels rise, leading eventually to the onset of “prediabetes” and then type 2 diabetes. Diabetes incidence is growing among youth and adults, largely as a result of obesity and inactivity. Regular aerobic exercise meaningfully increases insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, which means the body’s cells can more efficiently transport glucose into the cells of the liver, muscle and adipose tissue (Steyn et al. 2004). Improvements in glucose metabolism with strength training, independent of alterations in aerobic capacity or percent body fat, have also been shown (Pollock et al. 2001). Although the mechanisms for improvement are not fully understood, it appears that both resistance training and aerobic exercise offer a strong protective role in the prevention of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.

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