How Exercise Can Improve Your Holistic Wellbeing
By Elisa Furlan
reviewed by juliana ascolani
Ever since we were young, we’ve all been told that doing sport is good for us, that we should do it regularly, and that it’ll make our life better. But is it actually true?
The short answer is: yes. But let me explain.
Exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on your life. Integrating exercise in your daily routine is one of the characteristics of Blue Zones – the zones where people live longer and happier lives. But the benefits of exercise have been proven everywhere. In fact, the NHS states that people who do 150 minutes of physical activity per week have a 30% decreased risk of all-cause mortality than those who don’t do any kind of physical activity. Moreover, a study conducted on 80,306 British adults showed that the rate of all-cause mortality significantly reduced for participants who regularly did physical activities such as cycling, swimming, racquet sports, and aerobics.
Is exercise equally accessible?
Even though it’s a widely discussed topic, there are a lot of people who don’t – or can’t – exercise. According to the World Health Organization, 23% of adults and 81% of adolescents aged 11-17 years old aren’t as physically active as the WHO recommends for their age group. As Dr Cavill, a health promotion consultant from the UK, explains, things have changed in the last decades: previous generations, thanks to work and manual labor, were more active than current generations. For this reason, we have to find other ways to compensate for the lack of physical activity in our workplace.
But the problem is not only that people don’t want to exercise. For example, in the case of people with disabilities, reports show fewer neighborhood environmental support, such as sidewalks, public transit, and walkable shops, and more barriers, such as traffic, crime, and animals. In the USA, less than half of the adults with mobility disabilities – meaning they have difficulty walking and climbing stairs – report engaging in aerobic physical activity.
What are the benefits of exercising?
According to the NHS, in order for any activity to benefit your health, you need to do it at a moderate intensity. This can be defined as moving fast enough for your heart rate to rise, you to breathe more often, and you to feel warmer. Even if the more you do, the better – since doing sports and high intensity activities will make you healthier – it’s important to find your level and exercise accordingly.
Here are some of the most common benefits of doing physical activity:
- Improved mood: According to a study, exercise can help you feel better mentally. A small increase in physical activity helped decrease the odds of developing depression by 26%. Whether it is indoor or outdoor, exercise always helps improve one’s mood. In regards to the latter, doing physical activity surrounded by nature, known as green exercise, has been shown to make you feel even better. A meta-analysis covering 10 UK studies with a total of 1,252 participants proved that any green environment can improve both self-esteem and mood, especially if this environment also includes water.
- Weight control: Obesity is a big problem in today’s society: in 2016, almost 2 billion adults were overweight. Of these, over 650 million were obese. Exercise has been shown to help you lose body fat and, therefore, change your body composition. One study was conducted on 48 obese young adults – between the age of 18 and 35 – who took part in a 12-week high-intensity exercise program. Results showed that body fat, as well as body weight, significantly dropped thanks to the high energy expenditure that the workout required.
- Improved thinking: Regular activity can keep your mind sharp as you age. Moreover, it can help reduce your risk of depression and anxiety. A study conducted on depressed adults aged 18-65 investigated the antidepressant effects of aerobic exercise. The participants exercised for 45 minutes three times a week at moderate intensity for 9.2 weeks. Results showed an overall significant decrease in depression levels.
- Less risk of illnesses: According to the NHS, the chances of you getting a long-term illness such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer can be reduced by up to 50% through physical activity.
- Stronger bones, joints, and muscles: These three things are very important because they support your body and help you move. According to the CDC, the loss of bone density – a consequence of aging – can be slowed down by physical activity such as aerobics, muscle-strengthening, and bone strengthening. It can also help you prevent hip fractures, a dangerous injury that can have life-changing negative effects on people, especially as you age.
- Lower the risk of falling: Different types of physical activity, such as aerobics, muscle-strengthening, balance activities, running, brisk walking, and doing jumping jacks, can help your bones grow and also help you improve your balance. Since older people are at a higher risk of falling and breaking bones, these activities can help them prevent falling and therefore fall-related injuries.
- Help with arthritis: According to the CDC, doing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week plus muscle-strengthening exercises can improve your ability to manage pain, helping you lead a better life. Moreover, if you’re suffering from arthritis, participating in joint-friendly activities – such as walking, biking, and swimming – can improve your arthritis pain, function, mood, and quality of life.
- Help with Alzheimer’s disease: According to the World Health Organization, nearly 50 million people have dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form. Although it cannot be cured, there are ways to improve functional ability. One study was conducted on 76 older adults with probable Alzheimer’s disease. The participants completed six months of aerobics exercises, conducted with supervision and monitoring by trained exercise specialists, for 150 minutes a week. Results showed that these people had a modest gain in functional ability, meaning the ability to perform daily activities such as bathing, dressing, shopping, or doing housework.
How much should you exercise?
The time you are advised to spend exercising varies based on your age. According to the World Health Organization, there are three main categories, though all three groups are advised to reduce the time they spend sitting down or lying on the couch:
- Children and teenagers (up to 17): It’s better for people in this age group to do at least 60 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a day. A moderately intense activity can be anything from walking to school, doing playground activities, and walking the dog, to skateboarding and rollerblading. These activities help you develop movement skills, muscles, and bones. Moreover, it’s advised to do vigorous intensity aerobic activities at least three days a week.
- Adults (aged 18 to 64): Even though this is such a wide range, people from this age group are advised to be physically active every day and do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity a week. There are two main things when it comes to exercise: do it, even if only for a short period of time (any activity is better than none), and choose the type and intensity of your activity based on your personal level. Nonetheless, doing more than the recommended amount of exercise can be beneficial for those who have been inactive for very long.
- Older adults (over 65): People from this age group, like adults, are advised to be physically active every day, and do activities that improve their strength, balance, and flexibility at least two days a week. Balance exercises, in particular, can help you reduce the risk of falling and the consequential injuries.
In general, you don’t have to be a top athlete and exercise eight hours a day to see improvements in your health. Smaller daily activity can be greatly beneficial, too.
The best exercises that you can do
If you want to start doing sports but you don’t know where to start, here’s a list of exercises that are both good for your health and accessible:
- Swimming: As Dr I-Min Lee explains, swimming is good for people with arthritis because it’s less weight-bearing. In fact, water supports your weight and takes the strain off painful joints. This way, you can move more fluidly. Moreover, swimming can improve your mood and wellbeing. A 2020 study investigating the effects of swimming on mood was conducted on 61 people taking part in a 10-week introductory outdoor swimming course. Results showed a significant reduction in negative mood, as well as an increase in wellbeing and positive mood.
- Strength training: Improving the strength of your muscle is very important. As Dr Lee explains, “If you don’t use muscles, they will lose their strength over time.” Moreover, the more muscles you have, the more calories you burn. This means that people with excess body weight can benefit greatly from strength training long-term. The benefits of strength training have been studied thoroughly. A 2013 review focusing on adolescents and children highlighted that strength training can benefit bone density and mass, preventing future risks of osteoporosis. However, strength training isn’t only accessible to children and young adults. If you’re thinking that you’re not young enough to do strength training, keep reading. A study was conducted on 33 women between the ages of 77 and 87 and lasted 28 weeks; the results showed an increase in global cognition levels for women with cognitive impairment, as well as an increase in functional fitness and anti-inflammatory cytokine concentrations – meaning that their immune system improved.
- Walking: Although it’s a very simple activity, it can benefit you greatly. Apart from helping you improve cholesterol levels, increase bone strength, and lower your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, it can also help you improve your mental state. A study conducted on 585 people who were asked to take short walks through forest areas showed that walking, especially through green areas, can help you reduce depression, anxiety, tension, anger, and fatigue levels. Even though this study shows that walking through forest areas is better than walking in the city, the most important thing, once again, is doing any kind of physical activity. If you don’t feel like walking in a forest, but in a city, that’s still a great physical activity.
- Tai Chi: Combining movement and relaxation, tai chi is especially beneficial for older people, because it helps improve their balance. Nonetheless, since there are classes for all levels, everyone from any age group can take part in a lesson and enjoy it. Apart from improving your balance, tai chi has been shown to improve your mental health. A 12-week study conducted on 76 people showed that tai chi training can help reduce blood pressure and decrease people’s anxiety levels.
Team sports or individual sports?
A recent study from 2019 was conducted on athletes to investigate their motivations for playing individual or team sports, as well as the proportion of athletes with mental health diagnoses. Results showed that individual sport athletes were more likely to play sports for goal-oriented reasons rather than for fun, and also that they were more likely to report anxiety and depression than their team sport counterparts. Team sports, therefore, can have a positive impact on your mental health.
Does this mean that you have to do a team sport? Absolutely not. As interviews with 26 individuals showed, the physical activity you decide to do needs to be enjoyable and pleasant to you in order to be beneficial.
Whether you choose to do aerobic, resistance, combination, team or individual training, the most important thing is to do the movement you love.
I am a positive and enthusiastic writer with an enormous passion for books. I am mostly interested in the fields of equal rights, global environment, and justice. I believe in the power of words: everything we know, we know because we read about it, heard it on the news, or someone told us – it is all connected to words. Contributing to change this world – the one and only one we will ever know – is a privilege as well as a duty: everyone can write something on the internet, especially these days; not everyone, though, can communicate effectively. It is my goal to help this world change, word by word.
I am a health researcher who bridges data science and health research with direct experience in healthcare and university institutions, passionately and collaboratively pursuing the integration and synergy of all key areas of health and wellness. I believe in inclusion as the main pillar of our society, especially when it comes to health. Promotion and prevention in health empower people to adopt healthy decisions, thus I have been working during the last years in the development of inclusive and holistic health systems. What do I enjoy the most about my job? Realizing how we are making a difference in people’s lives, and seeing the result in their health journeys. I enjoy the challenge of questioning new paradigms and creating debate around them.
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