8 Reasons to Exercise That Have Nothing to Do With Swimsuits

For starters, live longer, feel smarter, and ward off depression.

Posted May 04, 2016

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Source: bogdanhoda/Shutterstock

It’s you versus the couch. How much does catching up on four seasons of Game of Thrones cost you? Summer is coming and with it comes the old, familiar determination to get in shape before it’s time to start shedding layers. But exercise does so much more than make us beach-worthy. It’s been called a magic drug, one that has the power to keep us at our best in ways that aren't just skin deep. Add up the research and the picture is clear: Physical activity (with the OK of your doctor, of course) should be part of your life, no matter the season.

These are just a few reasons to stay active:

1. Exercise boosts life expectancy.

Lack of exercise is linked to twice as many early deaths as obesity. The good news is that even modest activity makes a big difference. For example, a 2015 University of Cambridge study found that a brisk 20-minute daily walk can reduce the risk of early death by 16 to 30 percent.

Even if you’re older and unable to get around like you once did, you still benefit by doing whatever you can to be active—and the more active, the better. Research confirms that physical activity during retirement can reduce death risk by two-thirds.

2. Exercise is powerful medicine for depression and anxiety.

A 2010 analysis of dozens of studies found that exercise acts on the same neurotransmitter systems in the brain as antidepressants, and people who exercise have fewer anxiety and depression symptoms, and lower stress and anger levels. 

Other research has shown that exercise is not only good for treating depression but can actually prevent it from occurring in the first place. 

3. Exercise slows aging.

A 2016 study using mice found that physical activity, especially when combined with a healthy diet, can slow the accumulation of a type of cell, called senescent cells, that contributes to aging and age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and osteoporosis.

Exercise also keeps the brain young. It counteracts brain atrophy, and a 2016 study found that older people who get at least moderate exercise are mentally about 10 years younger in terms of their thinking skills than those who get little to no exercise.

4. Exercise aids sobriety.

We in the addiction treatment community see how exercise can help people struggling to overcome problems with drugs and alcohol. And multiple studies back this observation up: Exercise has been shown to help curb a person’s drug and alcohol use and cravings, to make cigarettes less attractive, and to make relapse less likely. Part of the reason seems to be that exercise and substance use trigger the same reward centers in the brain. Exercise can also help stabilize circadian rhythms, our daily rhythms of eating, sleeping, and social interaction that so often get out of sync with substance use. 

People who exercise are also less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol in the first place.

5. Exercise improves gut microbes.

New research points to the importance of gut microbes in mental and physical health. Exercise, especially early in life when these microorganisms are especially plastic, alters the microbial environment. Research indicates that this has a positive influence on brain function and metabolism over the course of a lifetime.

6. Exercise means better mental health.

A 2015 study by researchers at the Technical University of Madrid showed that people with low levels of physical activity are more vulnerable to mental health issues. Among people who got at least moderate exercise, the risk was cut by more than half.

Exercise has also been shown to help people with emotional regulation, and improve the prognosis for those diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychosis. A University of Vermont study of high school students found that exercise even benefits those who have been bullied, by reducing suicidal ideation and suicide attempts by 23 percent.

Exercise is so effective for emotional well-being that insurers have been urged to increase coverage of exercise programming for people with mental health issues. 

If you’re eager to maximize the benefits of exercise on your mental health, take it outside. Research shows that getting physical activity in nature is linked to decreases in anger, depression, tension, and confusion, and that it boosts feelings of revitalization, energy, and positive engagement.

7. Exercise means better physical health.

No surprise here. But what may be news is the sheer range of illnesses that exercise can either help prevent or fight. We know exercise is good for our hearts, but studies show that regular exercise can also:

And the list goes on and on...

8. Exercise makes your brain work better.

Exercise causes a variety of reactions in the brain that increase its ability to do its job. For example, intense exercise increases the levels of two neurotransmitters, glutamate and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which handle chemical messaging between brain cells. That messaging helps regulate physical and emotional health.

Exercise is also believed to boost the development of new brain cells in adults, as well as release certain hormones, both of which help with learning and memory; a 2015 neuroimaging study found a direct relationship between exercise and brain activity and function.

Research shows that fit people also tend to have more white matter and larger brains than those who get little exercise. People who get at least moderate activity show more variable brain activity at rest, which is linked to cognitive performance. 

A Powerful Prescription

If each of these benefits were combined in a pill, we’d all be clamoring for a prescription. Instead, we can get it all through exercise, and we need to remind ourselves what a truly magical thing that is. And the only side effect is you’ll fit into your swimsuit better.

David Sack, MD, is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine. As CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a network of addiction and mental health treatment centers that includes Promises luxury rehab in California and Clarity Way drug rehab in Pennsylvania.