What is exercise and why is it important?

Exercise in the form of regular physical activity may help us lead healthier lives. The NHS advise that exercise may lower the risk of developing a range of long-term conditions including heart disease and some types of cancer including colon cancer.


Staying active has also been linked to improved mood, quality of sleep and energy levels. It’s also shown to decrease the risk of depression and help to manage stress levels.

Discover our full range of health benefit guides and find out what to eat for a workout, what to eat for healthy joints and the best fitness trackers for exercise lovers. Plus, browse our energy-boosting breakfast recipes, high-protein dinner recipes and healthy chicken recipes.

What are the 5 top health benefits of exercise?

1. May reduce the risk of long-term health conditions

Although there is no guarantee against developing any particular health condition, research has consistently found that regular, moderate exercise is associated with a lower risk of developing a number of long-term conditions.

Along with a balanced diet, exercise may help us maintain a healthy weight. Moderate exercise also helps to keep our cardiovascular system in good health. These factors in turn reduce the risk of some long-term health conditions, including some types of cancer, heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

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In combination with other lifestyle factors, exercise may help prevent high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels as well as improving circulation.

2. May strengthen your muscles and bones

Regular exercise, in particular weight bearing and resistance exercise, is important to build and maintain healthy muscles and bones. When we use our muscles in a new way, tiny tears form in the tissue, helping the muscle grow bigger and stronger as they heal. You might notice that you’re sore after doing a workout that’s harder or different to normal – this is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and usually only lasts for a few days. The good news is that this kind of soreness means that your muscles are adapting and getting stronger.

Exercise is important for older adults, as muscles and bones naturally lose strength as we age. Staying active may help maintain strength, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, improving balance and reducing the risk of hip fractures and falls.

3. May help you maintain a healthy weight

In combination with a healthy, balanced diet, regular physical activity may help us to maintain a healthy weight. During exercise our heart rate increases and we burn calories.

Muscle tissue is also more metabolically active than fat tissue, meaning that the more muscle we have, the higher our basal metabolic rate (BMR) will be. This is the minimum amount of energy that our bodies use at rest, to carry out normal body processes such as breathing, cell repair and digestion.

There is some controversy about the role of exercise in weight loss, with some experts saying that diet is a more significant factor than exercise when it comes to losing excess weight. However, as there is a proven correlation between sedentary lifestyles and ill health, the best approach is a combination of the two – a balanced diet along with moderate physical activity.

Read more about how to reach and maintain a healthy weight.

4. May manage stress levels and promote better sleep

Mental health charity Mind suggests that physical activity may have a positive impact on mental health, helping to improve self-esteem and manage the symptoms of stress and anxiety.

In combination with following a treatment plan, regular exercise has shown to be helpful in managing mild to moderate depression. During exercise, our body releases endorphins (known as the body’s ‘feel-good’ hormones) which can help to lift overall mood.

Regular exercise may help boost energy levels and reduce tiredness during the day. Studies have also shown that moderate aerobic activity may help to improve sleep quality.

Read more top tips to get a good night’s sleep.

5. May protect brain health and function

Studies suggest that regular exercise has positive effects on cognition such as memory and attention. It’s thought this is because exercise improves blood flow to the brain and lowers levels of inflammation and cellular damage.

Some research has also been carried out on school age children and found a positive association between physical activity and cognitive function.

The Alzheimer’s Society has reported promising research suggesting that regular exercise may help to reduce the risk of dementia, although more studies are needed before we can understand exactly why this may be.

Discover the top 10 foods to boost your brainpower.

Is exercise safe for everyone and how much should I do?

For optimum health, the majority of us should aim to be physically active every day, if we can.

Guidelines vary for different age groups, but adults should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity (such as brisk walking, riding a bike or dancing) each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (such as jogging or running, team sports or skipping with a rope) each week. Adults should also include some activities aimed at strengthening the muscles such as yoga, lifting weights, or bodyweight exercises including push ups and sit ups, on at least 2 days each week.

If you have a specific health condition, such as diabetes, cancer or osteoporosis you will need to ensure the exercise you have in mind is appropriate for your condition. Check with your GP or Healthcare professional before you start a new exercise regime.

If you are new to exercise, lead a sedentary life or have concerns about a current health condition check with your GP before starting a new regime to ensure you do so without risk to your health.

This article was reviewed on 11 February 2021 by Kerry Torrens.


All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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