Exercise Research Articles & Resources

Ann Simmons
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor
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What Is Exercise?

People use the terms exercise and physical activity interchangeably, but there is a difference. Not all physical activity is exercise. Exercise requires planning, and individuals usually have a fitness goal when they exercise, such as burning calories or building muscle. However, people also engage in physical activity throughout the day when they walk, take the stairs, clean the house, or do yard work. (1) Unplanned physical activity has many of the same benefits as exercise because it burns calories and can increase lean muscle. That said, an individual with specific fitness goals may get faster results with a scheduled exercise regimen.

Exercise types include endurance, strength training, flexibility, and balance. (2, 3)

  • Endurance exercise, also called aerobic or cardio, helps improve heart, lung, and circulatory health and includes biking, brisk walking, jogging, and swimming.
  • Strength exercise uses weights or resistance to increase muscle mass and can strengthen the back, bones, and joints.
  • Flexibility exercises lengthen muscles and improve range of motion.
  • Stretching is a flexibility exercise. Tai chi and yoga are balance exercises that can help prevent falls.
Exercise — In The News
Health Tip: Pick Up a Jump Rope For Fitness

(HealthDay News) -- Jumping rope is a great form of cardiovascular exercise, and it can be a lot of fun to pick one up and blow off steam. The American Council on Exercise offers these guidelines: Hold the handles nearest the end of the rope with a light grip. Tuck... Read More

Health Tip: Build a Fitness Support System

(HealthDay News) -- A strong support system can help you stay motivated as you work toward your health and fitness goals. The American Council on Exercise offers this advice: Communicate with your partner and other loved ones about your commitment to health and fitness, and ask for help. Ask someone... Read More

Health Tip: Benefits From Proper Diet and Exercise

(HealthDay News) -- Following a healthy diet and getting more exercise can do wonders for your physical and mental health. The Weight-control Information Network mentions these benefits: Energizing your body to prepare for work, play and time with family. Improving your ability to manage stress and having a more positive... Read More

Related Questions & Answers

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One of the key dimensions to wellness is physical health (the others include emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual, vocational, and environmental). Going to the gym is one of the most common... Read More

How Exercise Can Reduce Anxiety

You probably already know that if you exercise regularly a good workout can help you feel less stressed and better able to cope with problems. But can exercise help people... Read More

How The Three Pillars Of Exercise Benefit Mental Health

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Why Is Exercise Important?

A person might look at an individual with taut muscles and minimal body fat and conclude that they don't need to exercise because they have good genes. The truth is that movement is vital for everyone, even those who appear naturally lean and fit. Exercise can speed up weight loss and build muscle. However, the rewards of exercise don't end there. A regular exercise routine can contribute to better overall mental and physical wellness. It can also become a valuable way to spend time with family and friends or simply to decompress. 

Exercise is essential because the human body is supposed to move. When individuals stop moving or exercising, they spend most of their time sitting, and their bodies may become deconditioned, possibly leading to disability and preventable illness. Inactivity can have the same dangerous effects as obesity and smoking. (4) Research shows that people who sit too much are at the same risk of dying as smokers. Sedentary people may encounter many physical problems, including weak bones and joints. Muscle atrophy may be another problem for people who don't get enough exercise. (5) Muscles follow the "use it or lose it" adage. Inactive muscles can become smaller and less effective.

What Are the Benefits of Exercise?

Exercise has immediate and long-term benefits, including improving overall health, burning calories, and strengthening bones and joints. Regular workouts burn fat, promote weight loss, and maintain a healthy weight. Regular exercise can help lower cholesterol and triglycerides and improve heart health. (6)

Working out can help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by lowering blood sugar and improving how the body uses insulin for energy. (7) For those who struggle with insomnia, regular workouts can make it easier to fall and stay asleep. (8)

An exercise regimen can help build lean muscle mass, and muscle burns fat even when an individual is inactive. Another benefit of exercise is that it promotes healthy joints and bones. It can also help older adults improve balance, reducing the risk of dangerous falls that can cause hip fractures and other injuries. (9)

Additional benefits of exercise include: (10)

  • Better brain function
  • Enhanced sexual health
  • Lower the risk of certain cancers
  • Improved mental health

How Does Exercise Improve Mental Health?

Exercise is also good for the mind. Studies show that exercise can improve mental health and well-being. Getting a good workout can help people with anxiety and depression feel better. (10) When an individual exercises, the body releases endorphins, feel-good chemicals produced in the brain that promote a sense of well-being.

Working out is a healthy alternative to substance use. (11) Exercise can be a positive distraction that takes attention away from using drugs or alcohol. It may also help people with addiction abstain from substance use since the natural endorphins released during exercise provide a healthy high rather than the destructive high caused by illicit drugs. Studies show that individuals in recovery find that exercise helps them avoid relapse. (12) Since it lifts the mood, exercise can benefit people with addiction and co-occurring disorders like anxiety and depression.

Using a gym or being part of a walking or running group also helps people in recovery form social connections for alcohol and drug-free activities. (13) When people get clean and sober, they may miss the camaraderie of friends who drank or used drugs with them. Associating with individuals who enjoy exercise can help a person struggling with addiction to develop healthy new friendships. 

How to Start an Exercise Routine

Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise 5 days per week and 2 days per week of weight-bearing/resistance exercise. Walking is a simple beginning exercise that most people can do without difficulty. A walking program can begin with a 15-minute walk that includes a 5-minute slow warm-up walk, followed by 5 minutes of brisk walking, and ending with a 5-minute slower cool-down walk. It's easy to build up to 30 minutes by adding a few minutes of brisk walking each week. (14)

Finding a gym or exercise program with a certified instructor can help an individual new to exercise avoid injury. People with prosthetics, such as hip or knee replacements, may want to consult their orthopedic doctor or a physical therapist for exercise guidance. Individuals with medical conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, and kidney disease should also check with their healthcare providers before beginning an exercise program. (15)

Exercise does not need to be done for long periods to be beneficial. Breaking up activities throughout the day can be effective, too. For example, exercising for 10 minutes three times a day can be as valuable as 30 minutes of continuous exercise. (16) Adults in the 18-64 age range should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderately intense activity, such as brisk walking, each week, and strengthening exercises 2 days a week. (17)

Sometimes, getting together with family or friends to develop a regular physical activity or exercise program can help everyone stay on task and enjoy the benefits of exercise combined with socialization.



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