Updated 14th April 2022

What are the health benefits of exercise and staying active?

Physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your health. 

Adding exercise or movement to your daily routine comes with a whole range of benefits, including:

  • reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers

  • improved mood and energy levels

  • better sleep

  • a longer and better quality of life

  • better gut health

Unpublished ZOE research has also found that regular exercise is good for keeping your blood sugar responses after meals in check, which is important for managing your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The ZOE at-home test analyzes your blood sugar and blood fat responses, as well as your gut health, and uses this information to give you personalized recommendations for the best foods for you.

You can take a free quiz to find out more.

The benefits of physical activity

Physical activity is crucial for your overall health. Here, we’ll look at some of the benefits of regular movement or exercise and what the research shows.

1. Better heart health

Exercise can lower your risk of developing heart disease by:

  • strengthening the heart muscle

  • helping to control blood pressure and blood fat

  • promoting healthy cholesterol levels

  • reducing inflammation

Multiple studies suggest that regular physical activity can reduce your chances of a heart attack by 50%. There’s also a growing amount of evidence that just one session a week could help to protect your heart.

Even people who have heart disease can see improvements to their heart health by adding physical activity to their routines.

2. Lower risk of some cancers

There’s strong evidence that being physically active can reduce your risk of certain cancers. 

In one study involving over 116,000 women, very physically active participants were 12–21% less likely to have breast cancer than those who did the least amount of physical activity. 

Similar evidence supports a decreased risk of bladder, colon, endometrial, kidney, stomach, and esophageal cancer.

Although it’s not yet clear exactly how physical activity reduces the risk of certain cancers, experts believe it may be due to its ability to lower inflammation and improve your immune system, plus other biological effects may be relevant.

3. Lower risk of stroke

Getting enough exercise may also reduce your chances of having a stroke. 

High blood pressure is one of the biggest health markers for stroke. And since physical activity helps control your blood pressure, experts recommended it for lowering your stroke risk.

4. Stronger muscles and bones

While physical activity won’t necessarily build extra bone mass once you reach adulthood, it can help to prevent bone and muscle loss as you age. 

Regular exercise also keeps your bones, joints, and muscles strong, which can protect you against injury and joint disease.

5. More energy

Being physically active can boost your energy and help with fatigue. Even small amounts, such as a short walk or climbing the stairs, can help. 

When you exercise, your body responds by creating more energy-producing compartments, called mitochondria, inside your muscle cells. The more mitochondria you have, the greater your energy supply. 

Your circulation also improves as you exercise, which helps your body use this energy more effectively. 

6. Better mood and mental health

If you’ve ever noticed an improvement in your mood after exercising, you’re not alone. Researchers have widely studied the relationship between physical activity and mental well-being, and evidence suggests they’re strongly linked.

In a recent study that included over 600,000 adults, researchers found that physically active participants were 26% less likely to experience depression than those who were inactive. 

7. A sharper mind

Multiple studies have demonstrated that physical activity leads to better memory, greater ability to focus, and improved thinking in both younger and older adults. 

As we age, exercise also helps maintain these cognitive abilities and lowers the risk of neurodegenerative conditions like dementia.

8. Better sleep

If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep, the secret may be to move more during the day. In a recent review of several studies involving close to 3,000 participants, evidence showed that even one day of exercise a week could improve the quality and length of sleep. 

Findings also suggested that you could see greater benefits to your sleep if you make exercise a regular part of your daily routine.

9. Better quality of life and longevity

Being physically active may help you live a longer, healthier life. 

A review of 13 different scientific studies found that regular physical activity could increase your life by as much as 7 years. 

Another study involving over 5,000 middle-aged adults found that those who were physically active reported 53% higher quality-of-life scores than those who were inactive. 

10. Better gut health 

Being physically active could help boost the health of your gut microbiome — the trillions of microorganisms that live in your gut, which are important for your immune and overall health. 

Studies suggest that exercise may increase the range and number of beneficial bacteria in your gut, which can improve your health and lower your risk of certain illnesses.

Emerging evidence appears to support this as scientists compare the gut microbiomes of athletes with non-athletes.

According to this research, athletes have greater diversity, more “good” bugs, and better overall gut health than non-athletes. However, it’s not currently possible to say for sure whether this is the result of exercise, a good diet, or a combination of the two, so more studies are needed. 

With ZOE's at-home test, you can understand more about your personal gut health.

11. Better blood sugar control

Research by ZOE scientists has found that exercising in the 2-hour window following a meal can improve your blood sugar responses to food. 

People who did a high amount of activity during this time (active for more than two-thirds of the time) had an average of 35% lower blood sugar responses than those who did a low amount of activity (active for less than one-third of the time). 

The group that did a medium level of activity had, on average, 18% lower blood sugar levels than the low activity group. 

Exercise can reduce your blood sugar levels after eating.

But why is lowering your blood sugar responses to food important for your health? 

After you eat, it’s normal for your blood sugar levels to rise and then drop again. But larger “spikes,” and the “crashes” that can follow, may be a problem. 

In the short term, these spikes and crashes can affect your energy levels and how you feel after eating. But if they happen regularly over time, they can increase your risk of conditions like heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

At ZOE, we run the world’s largest study of nutrition and gut health, with over 15,000 participants so far. The data we’ve collected shows that everyone's responses to food are different.

The ZOE at-home test analyzes your body’s unique blood sugar and blood fat responses to foods, as well as your range of gut bugs. You can also find out how exercising affects your blood sugar levels after you eat.

With the ZOE program, you can discover the best foods for your body and your long-term health. 

You can take a free quiz to find out more.

What types of exercise are right for you?

Different types of exercise have different benefits for your body, such as improving your endurance, strength, balance, or flexibility.

It’s good to include all of these in your physical activity routine, but factors like your age and sex can make the types of exercise you do even more important. 

Everyone can benefit from endurance exercises, also known as aerobic or cardio. These heart-pumping workouts strengthen your heart and lungs and can help protect you from conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. 

You should also include strengthening exercises like push-ups, lifting weights, or using resistance bands in your routine. Running, which many people think of as a cardio activity, also contributes to muscle strengthening. 

These exercises help maintain bone and muscle mass, which is especially important as you age. 

During and after menopause, it’s common for women to lose bone density and muscle strength. While osteoporosis is less common in men than in women, from the age of 50 onward, 1 in 5 men will experience bone fractures due to weakened bones. 

Doing exercises that strengthen your bones and muscles can help with this.

Balance and flexibility exercises, such as tai chi, yoga, and stretching, are also important, especially as you age. These can prevent falls, avoid injury, and keep you moving freely.

How much exercise should you aim for?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that you aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, and at least 2 days of muscle-strengthening, each week. 

That’s the equivalent of 30 minutes of heart-pumping movement 5 days a week. You could do 30 minutes in one session or, if you’d rather, break it up into 10-minute spurts. Do what works best for your lifestyle and schedule.

How to get started

If you’re looking to increase your physical activity, it’s important to remember that you have to start somewhere and that any movement is better than none.

If you’re new to exercise, try incorporating small changes into your everyday routine, like:

  • parking your car farther away and walking

  • taking the stairs

  • walking to check the mail

  • standing while working

  • walking around when talking on the phone

  • sitting on an exercise ball at your desk

  • taking your kids and/or dog on a walk

  • planting or maintaining a garden

If you’re looking for something new or different, try some outside-the-box ideas, like:

  • taking a dance class or having a dance party by yourself

  • hiking or mountain biking

  • swimming, kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding

  • joining a local or company sports team

  • jumping on a trampoline

Being physically active doesn’t mean you have to join a gym or other structured setting if that doesn’t feel right for you. No matter what activity level you’re starting at or what you choose to do, make it something you will enjoy. 

Choosing activities that excite you is a great way to keep your body moving.

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Summary

Exercise and movement come with a whole host of benefits for both your physical and mental health. 

Research suggests that adding physical activity to your routine can improve your heart health, gut health, sleep, blood sugar control, mental sharpness, mood, and general quality of life. It can also strengthen your muscles and bones, increase your energy, and it may reduce your risk of stroke and certain types of cancer.

It’s best to regularly do different types of exercise, including activities that work on endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance. But certain kinds can be particularly important, depending on your life stage and goals. So make sure you start at a level that’s right for you and build from there.

Being active and eating the right foods for your body are vital for your overall health. 

You can take a free quiz to see how ZOE can help you with your goals.

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