20 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Physical Activity
Exercise or physical activity has experienced a surge in popularity of the last 15 years. This rise in popularity has also been accompanied with a wealth of being conducted on the effects of physical activity on weight loss, strength, disease prevention, muscle mass, metabolism, quality of life, mental health and a wide range of other factors. This research has shown that exercise is one of the most beneficial, if not the most beneficial activity that can be carried out for health, wellbeing and fitness development and yet physical activity has been shown to be decreasing in recent years, with obesity and sedentary behavior becoming a major health concern. (1)
Below, the benefits of general physical activity and exercise will be reviewed with particular attention to which exercise best delivers each benefit in question.
However, it is important to note that physical activity can include both planned exercise, such as a weight lifting session, and recreational or spontaneous activity, like walking to work or even something as simple as fidgeting when seated and each can bring unique benefits. (2)
20 Health Benefits of Physical Activity
1. Increased Physical Activity Can Help Prevent and Fight Obesity
As stated above, obesity has become a primary health concern across the world, with obesity indirectly causing the deaths of millions from multiple nations. (3)
The two key elements of reducing obesity are through either changes to diet and/or changes to physical activity levels. (4) As such, being an active individual can both reduce the chance of becoming obese and help fight obesity in people struggling with weight or a high amount of body fat,
One unique consideration of this benefit is that all types of physical activity have been shown to be effective in reducing weight and body fat (5, 6) so long as this exercise is sustained and consistently carried out over the lifetime, as decreasing this activity without a change in diet can cause obesity to return alongside its associated illnesses and diseases.
2. Physical Activity Can Improve Quality of Life
As well as improving lifespan physical activity can also improve the quality of an individual’s life by improving their capability and the ease of which they can carry out daily tasks such as stair-climbing, carrying and even walking. (7)
This makes an increase in physical activity, particularly resistance training, beneficial for elderly people who can have difficulty with these tasks but can also be useful for younger individuals looking to improve functionality.
3. Physical Activity Can Improve Strength and Muscle Mass
With an emphasis on weight training, physical activity is essential to increase both strength and muscle mass (8), which has been shown to help increase metabolism and help protect against disease (9) as well as offer the above mentioned benefits to capability and functioning.
Increased muscle mass is also a key element in improving physique and athletic performance (10), which offers a wide ranging benefit to increasing physical activity that will affect both health and sports performance.
4. Physical Activity Improves Cardiovascular Fitness and Health
As well as improving strength, physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise like jogging or circuit training, can help reduce resting heart rate, improve blood pressure, fight cholesterol and improve the size and strength of the heart as well as the flexibility of the walls of the blood vessels. (11, 12, 13)
This can lead to a longer lifespan and improved performance in both endurance sports and field based sports like football and rugby.
5. Physical Activity Can Help Prevent and Fight Cancer
Cancer is another major health concern globally and is one of the biggest causes of death (14). However, physical activity, in both recreational activity and formal exercise, has been shown to help reduce the risk of developing most types of cancer, particularly breast and prostate cancer. (15, 16)
In addition to this, more recent research has begun to focus on the use of exercise, both aerobic and strength based, can be used alongside conventional therapies like radiation and chemotherapy to help improve survival rates, reduce days spent in hospital and improve mood and quality of life. (17)
As cancer is one of the leading causes of deaths worldwide, this offers a unique and significant benefits to increasing or maintaining physical activity levels.
6. Physical Activity Can Prevent Heart Disease
As mentioned above, one of the biggest effects physical activity has is improving heart health. However, it is also useful in preventing heart and cardiovascular based disease such as atherosclerosis, strokes and heart attacks. (18)
With the improvement of cardiovascular health and disease prevention, physical activity ranks as one of the most important things to do to protect and improve the heart and blood vessels and is even recommended by the American Heart Association as a key element for health.
7. Physical Activity Can Help Prevent and Treat Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is one of the fastest rising diseases in recent years, with some complications of the disease including increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, heart and kidney disease and a shortened lifespan. (19)
This gives physical activity a large benefits, even over other health based interventions such as dieting, as it has been shown to help prevent the risk of diabetes (20) and has been shown to decrease the amount of insulin needed when undergoing treatment for the disease due to increased insulin sensitivity in the exercised muscles. (21)
This makes physical activity essential for those with diabetes or those worried about their insulin levels or overeating.
8. Physical Activity Can Improve Lung Function
As well improvements in cardiovascular health, physical activity, particularly aerobic or cardio based exercise, can improve lung functioning. (22) This occurs through increasing the amount of air that can be inhaled and exhaled as well as increasing red blood cell count, which increases the amount of oxygen that can be transported and utilized in the body. (23, 24)
These are potential reasons as to why physical activity has been shown to improve lung function in smokers, individuals with underdeveloped lungs and in those suffering with lung diseases such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases, or COPD. (25, 26, 27)
All of these benefits present a clear case for the inclusion of regular aerobic based physical activity such as jogging or cycling in a daily or weekly routine.
9. Physical Activity Can Improve Brain Function
Along with improving many physical health measures, increased physical activity is also an effective means of improving brain function and capacity, including learning, reaction time, memory and critical thinking. (28, 29, 30)
This has been shown to help improve performance in school and in the workplace, with similar benefits being provided through cardio and weight based activities. (31, 32)
For those looking to improve brain power or academic achievement, including an exercise program into the week can be instrumental to success.
10. Physical Activity Can Help Prevent Alzheimer’s and Dementia
In addition to improving brain based performance, physical activity like resistance training, cardio or even increasing recreational activity like walking or cycling can help decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. (33)
This is thought to be due to increases in signals in the brain that trigger increased blood flow in the brain and brain matter growth that occur after exercise. (34)
Considering the additional benefit exercise has on heart health, structured physical activity should be a consideration for any elderly or middle-aged individual.
11. Physical Activity Can Help Prevent and Treat Depression
Because of the the increase in signaling mentioned above, physical activity such as cardiovascular exercise, but particularly weight training has been shown to have a beneficial effect on mental illness. (35)
These benefits include reducing the risk of developing depression and improving mood. (36, 37, 38) However, there is also mounting evidence that exercise may be one of the best ways to treat depression, with one study showing it to be more effective than conventional anti-depressant medication. (39)
This beneficial effect, alongside the lack of side effects that are common in antidepressant drugs makes exercise an ideal choice for those struggling with low mood or looking to improve mental health.
12. Physical Activity Can Help Treat ADHD
Physical activity like increased walking and high intensity cardiovascular exercise can also be used to help improve behaviour, cognitive function and reduce the severity of the symptoms of ADHD. (40, 41)
It has also been shown to improve mood and confidence in individuals with ADHD and, unlike alternative methods of treatment, has no adverse side effects.
All of these factors should be carefully considered, particularly by parents who care for children with ADHD, as increasing the amount and intensity of physical activity each day may help significantly improve health and quality of life.
13. Physical Activity Can Help Treat Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder
The beneficial effects on brain matter growth means that exercise has extended benefit across a variety of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, with patients of both showing substantial improvements in mood and functioning after both strength and cardiovascular exercise. (42, 43, 44)
This is particularly important as individuals with these mental illnesses have been shown to be less active than general populations (45), allowing for further benefits to be attained with an increase in physical activity.
In terms of type of activity, both cardiovascular and resistance training have been found to be effective, with an increase in recreational activity providing further benefit.
14. Physical Activity Can Help With Pain Management
Exercise induced analgesia is a name given to the phenomenon of a reduced susceptibility to pain after exercise. (46) This effect has been found to occur after most types of exercise, but particularly after high intensity exercises like interval training or resistance training. (47, 48)
This impact on pain has been shown to be beneficial in many cases where chronic or long lasting pain is present, such as with low back pain (49) and fibromyalgia. (50)
The reasons behind the pain reducing effect of exercise is thought to be in part to the release of chemicals in the brain following exercise which help improve mood and decrease sensitivity to pain.
Considering many conventional pain medications can have adverse side effects and can be highly addictive (51), exercise offers a safer alternative when considering pain management methods.
15. Physical Activity Can Help Prevent and Treat Osteoporosis
All types of physical activity, particularly resistance training, has been shown to improve bone mineral density and strength. (52, 53) This can protect against both osteoporosis and bone fractures, which are particularly prevalent in elderly individuals who experience falls. (54, 55)
A positive effect on bone health also has particular benefit to postmenopausal women, who have been shown to have decreased bone mineral density due to lower hormone levels and are at an increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures (56), providing another good reason to increase physical activity with age.
16. Physical Activity Can Improve Arthritis
Increasing physical activity like resistance training or recreational activity can help reduce inflammation and help improve joint health. (57)
This can help prevent osteoarthritis and slow down progression. (58) There is also evidence that exercise can help improve measures of rheumatoid arthritis by helping reduce inflammation and pain. (59)
For those suffering from either form of arthritis physical activity should be considered as a form of therapy to be used alongside conventional medications to maximize their therapeutic effect.
17. Physical Activity Can Slow Down Aging
Two of the largest determinants of aging is inflammation and the creation of certain proteins such as collagen. (60)
While elements such as stress and and diet can help increase inflammation and contribute to aging, exercise, in particular exercise like resistance training, that increases collagen creation and decreases inflammation in the body, has a significant impact on skin, nail and hair health. (61, 62)
This, along with a good diet, can be used to help prevent flaky skin, greying hair and an older appearance and promote a young and healthy physique, providing another comprehensive and unique benefit to exercise that is not seen in many alternative methods of anti-aging.
18. Physical Activity Can Improve Hormone Levels
High intensity exercise such as resistance exercise and some types of cardiovascular training have been shown to boost testosterone and estrogen. (63, 64)
Testosterone is an essential hormone for promoting strength, muscle mass and mood (65, 66), whereas estrogen has been shown to be a key hormone in protecting tendon and bone health as well as promote fat burning, particularly in women. (67)
By improving these hormone levels, overall health can be improved and injuries can be prevented, even in older age when these hormones decrease (68).
19. Physical Activity Can Improve Sleep
Increased physical activity, especially strength training, has been shown to improve both sleep duration and sleep efficiency. (69)
Sleep has been shown to have a wide range of health benefits, including improved mood, fat loss and heart health. (70, 71)
As such, improving sleep quantity and quality can improve many aspects of health and offers exercise as a possible treatment for those with insomnia or individuals who are sleep deprived.
20. Physical Activity Can Help Treat Addiction
One of the more unexpected benefits of physical activity is its positive effect on reducing addictive behavior, improving willpower and helping sobriety.
This has been shown in very recent studies which have demonstrated that including exercise like cardiovascular workouts into a rehabilitation program helped improve long term abstinence from drug use and prevent relapse. (72)
With substance addiction becoming a rising concern, physical activity may offer another way to benefit public health rather than just aid weight loss and mental health.
Increasing any form of physical activity can have a range of benefits from physical to psychological. However, physical activity can have detrimental effects on health such as loss of bone density, muscle mass and even effects on the menstrual cycle if carried out excessively. (73, 74, 75, 76)
To avoid overtraining, resistance training should be carried out around 3 times per week, with cardio carried out 1-2 per week.
Recreational activity like walking or light cycling, on the other hand, can be carried out as much as desired with little adverse effect.