Brian Parr

Brian Parr

There is no question that exercise is essential for achieving and maintaining physical fitness, losing weight and keeping it off, and preventing and treating conditions like diabetes and heart disease. What you may not know is that exercise can improve your health in ways that you may not be able to notice in the gym or on the scale. Here are a few surprising ways that exercise can improve your health:

Improve your immune system

Exercise can have a positive effect on your immune system. People who participate in moderate exercise on a daily basis have fewer and less severe colds and have up to 50% fewer sick days than those who aren’t regularly active. Research shows that exercise increases the activity of certain immune cells called helper T cells. This makes the immune system response to viruses, like the cold and flu, more robust. The strongest evidence is seen when the exercise is moderate in intensity and duration, such as a 30- to 60-minute walk or jog.

Fight the fire of inflammation

Inflammation is a key factor involved in the development of numerous chronic diseases including heart disease, obesity, diabetes and some cancers. Many people look to their diet for foods that have anti-inflammatory properties, but it turns out that exercise can have a significant impact on reducing inflammation, too. This has to do with the facts that exercise causes your muscles to produce chemical signals called myokines that influence other organs. One of these is IL-6, a substance that has potent anti-inflammatory effects.

Balance your gut bacteria

You have probably heard that the bacteria that naturally inhabit your intestines are linked to your health. Put simply, some of these bacteria are harmful to your health, directly and indirectly causing health problems. Most obvious are GI issues, but these bacteria can also influence your hormones and metabolism in ways that lead to inflammation, obesity and heart disease. Other bacteria are considered “good,” meaning they have positive health effects. Research shows that exercise can have a beneficial effect on gut bacteria which potentially can influence GI system health, inflammation and weight control.

Boost your brain function

Research shows that exercise has far-reaching outcomes on the structure and function of the brain, derived from increased brain blood flow and the production of BDNF, an important growth factor that promotes brain growth and repair. The benefits include improved learning and memory, better attention and ability to ignore distractions, enhanced stress management and improved mood.

Sleep better

Exercise has long been associated with improved sleep. This is thought to be due to the fact that exercise depletes energy stores and elevates body temperature and sleep restores energy, promotes tissue repair and regulates body temperature. Exercise is a healthy, safe, inexpensive and simple means of improving sleep, potentially replacing sleeping pills. Research also shows that aerobic exercise can improve sleep quality, mood and feelings of vitality in people with chronic insomnia.

Take steps to achieve these benefits

Like improved fitness and weight control, these other benefits depend on the type, intensity and duration of the exercise you do. At a minimum, making time to be active every day is essential, even if it is a 30-minute walk. You should plan for longer exercise sessions on some days, shorter, more intense workouts on others and strength training at least two days per week. This will meet goals for fitness and weight control as well as achieving other hidden exercise benefits that will promote better health in general.

Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. You can learn more about this and other health and fitness topics at http://drparrsays.com or on Twitter @drparrsays.