Exercise – the most effective drug ever?

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‘If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented,’ says health promotion consultant, Dr Nick Cavill. That’s true, because the benefits of exercise go way beyond what many people think of as simple ‘fitness’.

Physical health benefits

  • Exercise can actively help you to prevent disease and debility. Research has proved that regular exercise:
  • Lowers your blood pressure (and in turn lowers your risk of stroke, heart attack, heart failure and kidney disease)
  • Increases the mass and strength of muscle (including the heart) and cardiovascular endurance
  • Increases flexibility and helps to prevent strains and injuries
  • Helps regulate hormones that control your appetite, body clock, sleep and blood sugar
  • Helps control weight
  • Helps prevent some cancers (reducing colon cancer risk by up to 30% and breast cancer risk by up to 20%)
  • Helps prevent some diseases, including Type II diabetes and Alzheimer’s (reducing dementia risk by up to 30% and delaying decline in sufferers, and reducing Type II diabetes risk by up to 50%)
  • Helps strengthen your bones and prevent osteoporosis and osteoarthritis
  • Helps you handle the physical exertion of daily activities and improves your balance, helping to prevent falls
  • Helps ease pain through the release of endorphins
  • Improves bowel function and helps prevent constipation
  • By reducing your risk of early death from preventable conditions and falls, exercise can increase your longevity too. However, it can do a lot more than just improve your physical health.

Mental health and wellbeing benefits
Exercise can:

Improve your mood
The endorphins released when you exercise can lift your mood and increase your energy levels.

Increase your self-esteem
Not only can exercise improve your fitness and appearance, making you feel better about yourself, it can also give you goals, a routine and a sense of achievement. These factors can work together to increase your self-esteem.

Improve the length and quality of your sleep
Poor sleep can contribute significantly to physical health issues and depression, anxiety, poor memory and concentration. Exercise can improve your sleep patterns.

Improve your mental health
Exercise is good for your mental health. Alongside its effects on your mood, self-esteem and sleep patterns, it’s also been proven to help alleviate anxiety, stress and mild to moderate depression. One study showed that just 10 minutes of brisk walking can increase mental alertness, energy and positivity, while another found that increasing your activity levels from zero to exercising at least three times a week can reduce your risk of depression by almost 20%.

Improve your sex life
Research shows that more active men and women have more sex. By improving your self-esteem, fitness and flexibility, regular exercise may increase your desire for, and enjoyment of, sex. Studies have shown that regular exercise may enhance arousal for women and that men who exercise regularly are less likely to have problems with erectile dysfunction than men who don’t.

Give you ‘time off’
You may not think of exercise as relaxing, but it can be. Not all exercise involves getting hot, sweaty and out of breath (although you do need to do some activity every week that makes you feel this way.). Tai chi, Pilates and yoga are all more relaxing forms of exercise. However, any exercise you do can take you away from your day-to-day concerns and give you time to focus on you, rather than your family, your work or your worries. The need to focus on your exercise can be a welcome distraction and give your brain a break.

Give you the chance to get outdoors
Ecotherapy is becoming more widely used as research proves the benefits of being out in the countryside. You may not always be able to exercise in a rural spot but getting outside to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine is great for your mental and physical health; some sunshine is necessary for us to produce Vitamin D which, among other things, is essential for absorption of calcium and good bone health.

Put more fun in your life
Experiment with different forms of exercise and you may discover one that you actually find fun, whether that’s country bike rides, Zumba or a sport. This makes exercise something you look forward to, rather than a chore.

Improve your social life and family life
If you join exercise classes or activity groups, you will benefit from the positive effects that socialising can have on your health and wellbeing. There may be related social activities and you could make new friends. You can also exercise with your family and, if you have children, becoming fitter will help you to take part in more of their fun and games. Team sports can also provide a sense of belonging and motivate you to improve and help your team become successful.

Zumba, tennis, surfing, swimming, rowing, boxing, karate, netball, Pilates, ballroom dancing… there are many types of sport and exercise, so keep an open mind and try out several to find something you enjoy.

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