Exercise is important for more than managing your weight

July 9, 2019 in Preventive Care  •  By Miles Varn, MD

One of the top pieces of advice that nutrition and exercise experts share is that regular exercise is an essential part of any plan to lose weight and keep the weight off. But even if you’re already at a healthy weight, getting exercise regularly is important for your overall health and wellbeing.

One study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found an association between a sedentary lifestyle and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, even for people at a healthy weight. Approximately 30% of sedentary people in the study who were a healthy weight had the same risk for heart attack and stroke as people who were overweight. In addition, they had more abdominal fat (a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes) and got short of breath when they exerted themselves. In contrast, people in the study who were a normal weight and took part in at least 150 minutes of activity per week were 58% less likely to have a heart attack compared to the study participants who were overweight.

How much exercise is enough?

Before starting any exercise plan, talk with your doctor to make sure the activity you want to do is appropriate for you. For example, if you have knee problems, your doctor may recommend skipping high impact activities like jogging and tennis and choosing lower impact exercise like swimming and walking.

For most healthy adults, the recommendation is to get 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise each week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise. Moderate intensity exercises include:

  • Brisk walking
  • Swimming
  • Bike riding
  • Dancing

Vigorous exercises include:

  • Jogging or running
  • Tennis
  • Workout classes like Zumba and step aerobics
  • Jumping rope
  • Hiking in hilly terrain
  • Sports like basketball and soccer

You don’t need to exercise for a long period each time to get health benefits from your activity. Shorter periods of activity throughout the day like a ten minute walk at lunch, one when you get home from work, and another after dinner have the same health impact as one 30 minute walk.

Why you shouldn’t just focus on aerobic exercise

While aerobic exercise offers many health benefits, it’s important to also include strength training two to three times a week. You can work out with hand weights, resistance bands, weight training machines, or just your body weight with exercises like squats and pushups. Strength training helps you increase your lean muscle mass and bone density (which lowers the risk of osteoporosis), increases metabolism to help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, and lowers the risk of joint injury by strengthening the muscles that support your joints.

Exercises that improve your balance should also be part of your weekly exercise plan. Some options include tai chi, yoga, Pilates, and using a balance board or stability ball. The health benefits of this type of exercise include reducing your risk of falls, especially as you get older, and a lower risk of knee and ankle injuries.

Building flexibility through stretching is also key. These types of exercise can help improve your range of motion, prevent workout injuries, and make sure the muscles on one side of your body aren’t tighter than the other, which can cause asymmetry that may increase your risk of injury. Stretching also lowers your risk of muscle cramps and pain, muscle damage, strains, joint pain, and falls. You should try to include stretching in your workouts 3 to 4 days a week.

Beyond the physical benefits of regular exercise, researchers have also found an association between exercise, brain function, thinking skills, and memory, as well as a lower risk of depression, so exercise can help your overall wellbeing.