Long-Term Health Benefits of Exercise for Our Body and Brain

Heather Campbell
 min read

Long-term health benefits of exercise are well proven in scientific studies.

Long-Term Health Benefits of Exercise for Our Body and BrainThe benefits are felt on both a physical and mental level.

As a general rule, everyone knows that exercise and physical activity are good for us and that we should move more. Unfortunately, we generally just don’t do it enough. We don’t need superhuman efforts to start noticing results because the mental and physical benefits are immediately apparent.

Only 25-30% of adults achieve the recommended amount of minimum exercise. But, of course, our changing society and corresponding lifestyle have a lot to do with that.

Read on to uncover the health effects of exercise on our body and learn the four essential types of physical activity that are good for your long-term health.

Long-term health benefits of exercise: Introduction

More and more, our activities take place behind a computer screen, sitting in a chair.

We also spend much of our free time this way. Meanwhile, our screen time has risen to an average of more than 3 hours a day.

This is an average, so a portion of the population goes well over the 3 hours of screen time per day.

However, there is a clear link between the time you spend in front of the TV (nowadays also smartphones and tablets) and numerous health problems (or their omens) such as diabetes, obesity, and even lower life expectancy.

Not that we should completely banish the television, smartphone, and tablet. But in practice, we simply don’t move enough (and chances are we will do so even less in the future).

Health effects of physical activity

The health effects of physical activity depend on 3 major, decisive factors:

  • Intensity
  • Duration
  • Frequency

For example, walking is less intense than, say, jogging. Still, you can largely compensate for that by walking longer and more often.

In other words, you really don’t have to be a top athlete to experience the beneficial effects of exercise. On the contrary, just about every scientific study shows that moderate exercise has great benefits.

A study that followed just under 14,000 people for 8 years concluded that walking for half an hour a day, 5 days out of 7, reduces the risk of premature death by up to 30%.

Good to know: This beneficial effect of walking plays into everyone’s hands, whether or not you are in core health, a smoker or a non-smoker, or whether or not you suffer from high blood pressure.

Tip: Don’t let the fact that you’re not fit keep you from exercising because people who don’t exercise much may just be making the biggest health gains.

Moderate exercise is key to becoming healthier

One of the most effective measures for getting (or staying) healthy is moderate exercise.

But what does this term mean in practice? What is meant by moderate exercise? What are long-term health benefits of exercise?

Below, for illustration purposes, you will find an overview of different activities and their intensity, expressed in MET (the Metabolic Equivalent of Task).

As a starting point, 1 MET equals the energy you consume at rest.

In other words, 1 MET is the energy you need to keep your body running at rest (to breathe, pump blood around, for brain activity, and so on).

RelatedWhy Does Your Metabolism Slow down After a Calorie Restriction Diet?

The intensity of different physical activities (expressed in MET)

Remember: A MET is the Metabolic Equivalent of a Task.

Light activities

  • Sleeping: 0.9 to 1 MET
  • Television viewing: 1 to 1.1 MET
  • Writing and/or typing: 1.7 to 1.8 MET
  • Walking up to 1.7 miles per hour: 2.3 to 2.4 MET

Medium-intensity activity

  • Cycling at a light intensity: 3.2 MET
  • Exercises without fitness machines: 3.5 to 3.6 MET
  • Cycling at a speed less than 10 miles per hour: 4.2 MET
  • Cycling at medium intensity: 5.6 MET
  • Sexual activity: 5.8 to 6 MET

High-intensity activities

  • Jogging: 7 to 7.5 MET
  • Heavy exercises without fitness machines: 8 to 8.2 MET
  • Running: 8 to 8.3 MET
  • Jumping rope: 9.5 to 10 MET

In short, there is no reason not to exercise (moderately) as long as it is appropriate to the person’s fitness levels..

Do you claim not to have time? That’s not an excuse, because for every 60 minutes you walk, you live an average of 6 to 7 hours longer.

Thus, exercise does not cost time but just generates extra in terms of life expectancy.

If you were to walk an hour every day, you could easily live several years longer than someone who walks a lot less.

In addition, moving also makes you happier (as little as half an hour of cycling per week has a measurable and tangible effect on your mood and happiness).

Beneficial effects of exercise

Long-term health benefits of exercise include:

  • Exercise also stimulates blood flow in the brain. This provides a fitter brain and has beneficial effects for various chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, cardiovascular problems, and more. In addition, exercise makes us feel good (a feeling known to runners as the runner’s high).
  • Exercise lowers the risk of colon cancer, breast cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, fall risk, type 2 diabetes, depression, and cardiovascular disease.
  • Movement also has an effect on our brain. It improves our cognitive functioning, regardless of our age. In the longer term, this even results in structural changes. For example, the hippocampus (a brain region that plays an essential role in our memory) enlarges when you exercise regularly. New brain cells are also created.
  • Exercise also slows the aging process.
  • As mentioned above, exercise is also an excellent way to vent your stress and frustrations. In other words, exercise works exceptionally well as a buffer that makes us more resistant to stress. Good to know: This is an effect that is maintained over the long term.
  • Exercise also reduces the risk of premature death.

What physical activities are good for health? 4 Types

To achieve optimal health and enjoy the long-term health benefits of exercise, 4 types of physical activity are essential:

  • Stretching
  • Strength training
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Balance exercises

Note that sports are thus not in this 4-part list. These are allowed but not necessary.

Of course, physical activity can be in the form of sports, but for some people, this raises quite a bit of resistance.

For example, due to the competitive and commercial nature often associated with sports.

On the other hand, it must be said that a sports club also offers many advantages.

For example, the social aspect can be an excellent incentive to exercise regularly. So no bad word about “sports” (and the numerous clubs).

But it is important to note that physical activity is thus indeed much broader than exercise alone. For example, cleaning, using the bicycle, walking, working in the garden, using the stairs instead of the elevator, etc.

They are all excellent forms of physical activity that have nothing to do with sports!

Stretching

You may not have been aware of it yet, but humans (and animals) often stretch spontaneously. In this way, specific muscles are stretched to keep them flexible.

The stretching technique helps stay flexible, but there is unfortunately also a risk of muscle tears if not performed correctly.

Therefore, it is crucial to warm up well beforehand and be accompanied by an experienced guide if necessary.

Strength training

Strength training causes your muscles to grow and become stronger.

There is also a beneficial effect on inflammation. It also helps to keep your glucose levels in check, which, when combined with a healthy diet, protects against diabetes.

As you age, your muscle mass systematically decreases. For example, are you between 50 and 60 years old? Then you lose an average of 2.5 to 3% of your muscle mass annually.

This is only the case if you do nothing because this too is not a process to be endured idly.

The effect of strength training is optimal when you can do it 2-3 times a week.

Most people think they need to go to a fitness center for this. But this is an incorrect assumption. You can also just do strength training at home (it usually costs you a little less time and money).

Do you enjoy going to a fitness center? Then, of course, that’s fine and no problem at all.

If you would like to do some strength training at home, consider exercising while your cooking pots are on the stove. Or you can do some exercises while you’re doing laundry or when you’re ironing.

You can work with weights or resistance bands that you can take anywhere. But you can also use everyday objects in and around your home to maintain and build muscle strength.

And it can be even simpler because you only need your own body weight and gravity for push-ups, sit-ups, and squats.

The principle of strength training and resistance training is that you go slightly beyond what you are used to, so it requires a certain amount of effort from your body and muscles.

However, you should not go too far because then you run too much risk of injuries and overuse symptoms.

So don’t just start lifting the heaviest weight without thought or preparation but always make sure you have a good warm-up.

Also, don’t hold your breath when you power up, as this creates too much pressure on your lungs. Inhale before the exercise and then do the strength exercise while exhaling.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise is moderate exercise such as cycling, brisk walking, swimming, running (but not sprinting), rowing, exercising on an elliptical, etc.

Aerobic means that you primarily use oxygen to convert carbohydrates into energy.

You don’t get tired or exhausted too quickly, so you can keep it up for quite a long time.

This form of moderate exercise brings many health benefits and can also be used to lose weight (at least if you combine it with an appropriate and healthy diet).

Anaerobic exercise, on the other hand, is short-term but intense training. This is the case, for example, when you sprint by bike or when you run as fast as you can, or when you lift weights.

In that case, the heart rate goes up considerably. Your muscles need so much energy that your breathing can no longer keep up, and another energy supplier is necessary.

What is the proper heart rate zone for aerobic exercise?

When you move, your heart rate increases.

To exercise aerobically, it is essential not to let your heart rate get too high (but also not too low).

Aerobic exercise is characterized by a heart rate zone of 68 to 75% of your maximum heart rate.

To know your maximum heart rate, subtract your age (in years) from 220.

A small calculation example will clarify this:

  • Someone 65 years old theoretically has a maximum heart rate of 155 beats per minute.
  • Thus, if this person wishes to exercise aerobically, this person should train in the zone between 105 (68% of 155) and 116 (75% of 155) heartbeats per minute.

Balance exercises

Balance is also, unfortunately, a skill that declines as you age. And that is immediately one of the reasons why the risk of falls increases in the elderly.

Because of their weaker bone structure, the consequences of a fall are also often more severe for them.

Good to know: Elderly people are about 9 times more likely to end up in the emergency room from a fall than traffic accidents.

In addition to physical damage such as a fracture, there are also unpleasant effects on daily activities.

Indeed, after a hip, leg, or arm fracture, one can suddenly no longer function independently. And for a significant number of elderly people, this is the reason for moving from independent living to a retirement home or an assisted living facility.

Our balance depends on 3 factors:

  • The inner ear (this takes care of sensory information)
  • The brain (which processes all this information)
  • A physical reaction (such as spreading your legs or arms, for example)

Fortunately, we can also take specific actions to improve our balance:

  • By exercising often and consistently
  • By keeping the muscles strong and flexible (that can also help you keep your balance better)

Research shows that balance exercises can reduce the risk of falling, and injuries are less severe in the event of a fall.

One of the best and most enjoyable exercises to improve your balance is dancing.

Balance exercises also provide other benefits such as improved cognitive functions and better social contacts.

Yoga also has several exercises aimed at balance, such as the tree pose, where you stand upright on one leg.

Some tips for getting more exercise

There are several simple remedies and techniques to start moving more.

Things that you can incorporate into your daily activities are very efficient. And exactly what exercise you do doesn’t really play that big of a role…

You can exercise, take the stairs instead of the elevator, take the bicycle instead of the car, do some exercise in between, clean, do activities in the household or work in the garden, and combine professional activities with some exercise such as standing instead of sitting, etc.

It is crucial that you enjoy doing it and that you can easily sustain doing it regularly.

Here are some options for inspiration:

Cycle or walk to work

The effect of this nature-friendly intervention is really not negligible.

You can usually get to that 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day (necessary for staying fit and healthy) without any problems.

But what if the company you work for is too far to do it on foot or by bike?

If necessary, park your car a bit further away or get off the bus or metro a stop earlier if you come by public transport.

And then you cover the rest of the route on foot, under your own power.

Walking is very healthy

Walking is easy and is at the top of the list for long-term health benefits of exercise for newbies.

You can do it anywhere, anytime, and you don’t need anything for it.

It is also one of the most time-efficient, enjoyable, and safe ways to improve your health.

There is a lot of scientific evidence that walking has a beneficial effect on inflammation, mental well-being, obesity, cholesterol, high blood pressure, dementia, etc.

These are quasi all health problems related to an unhealthy lifestyle.

Walking also helps you get your thoughts in order quietly. Walking gives you a different perspective on problems, whatever their nature.

Walking is not a form of slow running because there is always (at least) one foot on the ground while walking.

Both feet are off the ground at the same time about 40-45% of the time during an intense running session. As a result, running is quite taxing on your joints. Your body must absorb a punch of about three times its own body weight each time.

Not surprisingly, the risk of injury for walkers is a lot lower compared to runners.

Tips for walking more often

  • Consider Nordic walking. This is a more intense type of hiking where you use 2 poles. As a result, you will train almost all the essential muscles. Compared to regular walking, Nordic walking uses 40-45% more energy. Another advantage of Nordic walking is that the poles can help you keep your balance if you are suddenly in danger of falling or tripping.
  • Organize shorter meetings because most people cannot concentrate for more than an hour. Do you absolutely need a longer meeting that has to take place while sitting down? Then, schedule some stretching and movement exercises every 60 minutes. Research shows that this is less tiring and improves well-being and cognitive functioning.
  • Meet while walking. Several neuropsychologists advocate making your brain healthier through exercise. For example, one way is to hold discussions as often as possible while walking rather than sitting at a table. This may sound strange to many (at the moment), but it does work just fine, and there is a real chance that it will become more and more prevalent in the future.
  • Consider getting a dog. People with dogs are less likely to have cardiovascular problems. The explanation is that they are encouraged to walk their dogs and thus go for a walk.

Take the stairs more often and avoid the elevator

Get in the habit of always taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. Unless your office is on the 34th floor, using the stairs is often faster, too.

And you’ve also done some exercise in the meantime as opposed to your colleagues taking the elevator.

Climbing stairs is a pretty intense activity (there are even competitions and championships). It is an excellent way to break the sedentary behavior of all those who have sedentary jobs.

Tip: If you have trouble getting to, say, 10 floors a day by stairs, for example, you can make it a habit to go to a restroom on another floor.

Activity trackers and apps to get more exercise

Often 10,000 steps are considered the magic barrier. Every day, each of us should take at least 10,000 steps.

But those who live a healthy lifestyle and exercise regularly have basically nothing to worry about.

Still, want to better understand your exercise pattern because you’re not 100% sure if you’re doing the right thing? Then you can turn to numerous activity trackers.

Nowadays, these are often equipped with additional functions and measurements (such as heart rate, calories consumed, average speed, total distance, and so on).

Nowadays, they are often just built into your smartphone, although you may also want to purchase a smartwatch.

For the competitive-minded, it is interesting to know that you can also share your results with your friends in many cases, which can be an added incentive.

But be aware that you cannot enjoy privacy in this way (with potentially dire consequences in the future, such as burglars visiting when you are out of the house).

In any case, numerous smartphone applications will help you achieve your goals.

Some programs and timepieces remind you that it is time to get some exercise.

Jogging is smarter than running

Jogging is essentially a kind of intermediate form between walking and running.

It’s a little more intense than walking, but it doesn’t have the heavier load that walking does.

Like all aerobic forms of exercise, jogging has a beneficial effect on the body and mind.

Jogging on a treadmill is a good idea, but jogging outside in nature can stimulate your senses (this allows you to relax optimally and forget your worries for a while).

Try to include 2-3 jogging sessions each week, and in total, try to jog at least 2 hours per week.

Don’t overdo it. Build slowly and avoid injuries and overexertion!

Dancing offers numerous benefits

Dancing is not just moving because it also requires balance and coordination. Moreover, it is a social activity that can provide a lot of fun and cool moments.

So dancing is definitely a full-fledged sport with significant health benefits such as more and better social contacts, a lower risk of dementia, feeling fitter and more energetic, better balance, and more flexible and stronger muscles.

Move sufficiently during working hours

Especially for those who have mainly sedentary jobs, it is important to move regularly (even during working hours).

Don’t consider this a waste of time because your productivity actually increases when you move more. Another long-term health benefits of exercise!

It is recommended that you stand up at least every 60 minutes. More and more new developments and inventions on the market try to facilitate the combination of work and exercise.

For example, it is possible to invest in a bicycle desk. You don’t even have to cycle constantly. But at different times of the day, you can then make use of this, for example, when you have a customer or a colleague on the line.

Based on the benefits of exercise discussed above, you can expect the investment cost of a cycling desk, for example, to be quickly recouped in reduced absenteeism, increased job satisfaction, increased productivity, and happier employees.

Finally, we are happy to share some tips for organizing short, active work breaks in the office. What you do doesn’t really matter that much. So much more important is that you enjoy doing it because only then will you sustain it in the long run.

Exercises you can do at work as an active work break:

  • Doing side lunges
  • Push-ups at your desk
  • Doing lunges with a colleague
  • Triceps dips at your desk
  • Doing jumping jacks

Is medical screening required before starting physical activity and exercise?

The safest answer is yes. And this is especially true for people with chronic conditions who like to exercise intensely.

But, of course, this advice can also be counterproductive if it keeps people from starting to exercise.

It is best to consult your doctor if there are additional risks such as a history of deaths in the family from cardiac arrest or if you have cardiovascular problems yourself.

Long-term health benefits of exercise: Conclusion

There are, of course, limits to the link between exercise and health.

Up to a certain intensity of physical activity, there is a positive effect on our health.

But make no mistake because, after that, the health benefit diminishes. High-intensity exercise actually increases the number of health risks.

So you certainly don’t have to participate in marathons or triathlons to get healthier.

Above all, remember that consistent moderate exercise is excellent because you will make the most significant health gains with relatively low-impact and enjoyable modifications!

We hope that this article explains the long-term health benefits of exercise and that you will feel motivated!

Tip: Getting enough exercise is only one part of leading a healthy lifestyle. Find out some of the other tips in our other article: How to Live a Healthy Lifestyle? 17 Practical Tips to Live a Healthier Life

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More