The Extraordinary Health Benefits of Exercise

When life gets busy, is your workout the first thing you eliminate so you can get everything done? It’s just one workout, you think. But then weeks have gone by, and you haven’t returned to your exercise routine.

If you’re not exercising, you’re not alone. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends that healthy adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, yet only about half of people were meeting that goal in 2020, according to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When we don’t prioritize exercise, we miss out on a wealth of benefits for our physical, mental and emotional health.

“Exercise is medicine,” says UNC Wellness Center health educator Susan Chesser. “It’s the most important thing you can do for your health overall. If you want a good quality of life, exercise is the way to achieve it.”

We talked with Chesser about the benefits of exercise and how to approach the recommended guidelines for activity.

List of Exercise Benefits

“There are immediate benefits to moving,” Chesser says. “Right away, you’ll have an improved mood, an improved attention span and an improved metabolic rate.”

In addition to the quick boost, there are many long-term benefits of exercise. These include:

  • Improvement in risk factors for many conditions, including weight, hypertension and high cholesterol
  • Improved management of chronic conditions
  • Lower risk of heart disease and diabetes
  • Reduced risk of many types of cancer
  • More energy
  • Better bone and joint health
  • Improved stress management
  • Improved brain function
  • Reduced or delayed risk of dementia
  • Increased ability to engage in daily activities, such as chores and child care
  • Lower risk of anxiety and depression
  • For pregnant women, reduced risk of gestational diabetes and postpartum depression
  • Improved sleep
  • For people with chronic medical conditions, reduced risk of mortality and improved quality of life
  • For older adults, reduced risk of falls

“Exercise lengthens life,” Chesser says. “It really is key.”

Understanding National Exercise Recommendations

HHS recommends that healthy adults do at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, to receive substantial health benefits. Additionally, HHS recommends strength workouts, such as lifting weights, two or more days a week.

There are separate guidelines for children, adolescents, adults with chronic health conditions, older adults, adults with disabilities, and pregnant and postpartum women, but moderate-intensity activity is recommended for all groups as abilities allow.

What counts as moderate-intensity aerobic activity? Chesser explains.

“Aerobic activity is anything that gets your heart beating a little faster,” she says. “Intensity is a measure of how hard you’re working. We generally use the ‘talk test’ as a gauge of aerobic intensity. If you’re able to speak to another person during an activity, you’re working at a moderate intensity. If you’re unable to talk, you’re at a vigorous intensity.”

Moderate-intensity activities include brisk walking, biking on a flat road, playing doubles tennis, water aerobics, dancing and raking the yard. Generally, you’ll break a sweat and breathe a little harder than normal, and your heart will beat faster.

High-intensity activities include running, swimming laps, playing tennis, jumping rope, biking at a high speed or up hills, playing soccer and shoveling snow. Your heart will beat very fast, generally because the activity is performed at a higher speed or difficulty level than a moderate activity.

How to Meet the Exercise Guidelines

Especially if you haven’t been doing it much, the idea of finding 150 minutes in a week to exercise may seem daunting.

“Start where you are,” Chesser says. “If you’ve been sedentary, start by setting a timer so that you regularly stand up and walk around for five minutes. Any little bit is good.”

Chesser says those small breaks add up, so finding five minutes to walk briskly several times a day is an easy way to reach the goal. You might also be successful at fitting in five 30-minute workouts throughout the week.

“You have to be mindful about scheduling movement, especially if you work in a traditional office job,” Chesser says. “Look at the times that work best for your schedule, whether it’s an early workout in the morning or a walk on your lunch break.”

She cautions against trying to fit in all of your physical activity on a weekend.

“Weekend warriors have a greater chance of getting hurt,” she says. “A long run on the weekend is OK if you’ve been building up to it and conditioning for it with shorter runs throughout the week, but in general, it’s better to not overdo it on the weekends.”

It’s also important not to beat yourself up if you fall short one week.

“I don’t want anyone to get too hung up on the number of minutes,” Chesser says. “What’s important is making exercise regular and consistent over time.”

Talk to your doctor about your exercise goals and what kind of movement is right for you. Need a doctor? Find one near you.