To be told exercise is good for us is unlikely to come as any huge, hold the front page, shocker. And yet recent government research reveals six million adults between the ages of 40-60 fail to clock up even 10 minutes of brisk walking in a whole month.i The research also highlights how we have become 20% less active than we were in the 1960s and walk an average of 15 miles less than we used to 20 years ago.
Life can conspire against us getting that exercise when we are working longer hours in more sedentary jobs and have more sedentary behaviours like watching tv, scrolling through social media and driving instead of walking - but the government is describing this lack of activity as a ‘silent killer’.
So just what could becoming more physically active do for you?
Reduce your risk of disease
The health benefits of exercise are both immediate and long-term - helping to improve your quality of life by improving mood, keeping your weight down, reducing your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and some cancers. The government points out our lack of physical activity is contributing to 1 in six early deaths in the UK but say doing around 10 minutes of brisk walking daily (which tots up to its recommended 150 minutes a week) can significantly reduce the risk of getting ill and cut premature death by 15%. If you can do more than this, even better.
Keep your body strong
Regular exercise keeps your musculoskeletal system (muscles, joints and bones) healthy. All physical activity will help but exercises that use your body weight like the Plank or Lunges or ones using weight machines or hand weights will help enhance muscle function further and can also help improve balance. Maintaining this throughout your life can help you to prevent injury and make you 30% less likely to suffer from falls as an older adult. ii
As your muscle strength and endurance improves with regular exercise so you should find yourself less tired and with more energy to burn. Exercising delivers oxygen and nutrients to your tissues which help your cardiovascular system to function better. And when your heart and lungs are healthier you should have a welcome spark of energy. It might feel counterintuitive when you are tired to exercise but research shows a definite correlation between being more active and a reduced risk of feeling tired and drained of energy. iii
Improves your mental health
We know we feel better after a bracing walk, swim or cycle ride. It is thought that physical activity can help and treat some mental health conditions and according to the NHS could lower your risk of depression and dementia by as much as 30%. It can also help relieve stress and anxiety. This is because exercise influences chemicals like noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin which are known mood regulators and give you something of a happiness hit. You should also produce endorphins after sustained exercise and these help to relieve anxiety and depression as well as giving you something of an exercise ‘high’.
Helps you sleep better
Regular exercise helps most of us to a better night’s sleep. We fall asleep quicker and have better quality and less disturbed sleep (a 2013 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found 83 per cent of people said it helped.iv) The key is not to do it too close to bedtime, however, as the hormones released during physical activity like adrenaline and cortisol can leave you so fired up you find it difficult to wind down (see ‘No sleep after exercise’) and nod off. If you want to compare how well you sleep (with and without exercise) you could monitor this with a fitness tracker.
Keeping fit will help you to get in shape, potentially lose weight and help to improve your mood and confidence. This should help you feel better about yourself generally. It can help to remember exercise should be about enjoyment (rather than a form of punishment!) so do something you enjoy whether that’s swimming, cycling, walking or something more sociable like a Zumba or yoga class. Planning an exercise programme, and sticking with it, should also lead to a sense of achievement and improved self-esteem.
iv https://sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/RPT336 Summary of Findings 02 20 2013.pdf