A couple cycling in a park

The health benefits of exercise

Discover the many benefits of physical activity, including stronger bones and muscles, better cardiovascular health, improved mood, better sleep and more.

There’s no denying that exercise is good for you. Strong scientific evidence suggests that regular activity can help us lead healthier lives – with the NHS reporting that exercise can lower the risk of developing a range of long-term conditions including heart disease and some types of cancer such as 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.

Read on to discover more health benefits of exercise…

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

In combination with other lifestyle factors, exercise can help to prevent high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and constipation, as well as improving your circulation.

Exercise can also help in the management of some long-term health conditions. Diabetes UK has some great tips on the benefits of being active when you have diabetes – although do check with your GP or healthcare professional before starting a new regime.

Research from Macmillan suggests that appropriate and safe exercise during cancer treatment can have positive effects for patients, helping to preserve fitness levels and manage fatigue. If you are undergoing treatment for cancer, speak to your GP or healthcare professional to find out what an appropriate level of activity would be for you.

A swimmer in a pool

2. Exercise can 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 to grow bigger and stronger as they heal. You might notice that you’re sore after a 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 with age. Staying active can help to maintain strength, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, and improve balance, reducing the risk of hip fractures and falls.

If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, the NHS advice is to stay active. Check with your GP first though, as some people at risk of fracture should avoid certain high-impact activities.

Discover more in our guide to osteoporosis and bone density.

3. Exercise 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 both – a balanced diet along with moderate physical activity.

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

4. Exercise can manage stress levels and promote better sleep

Mental health charity Mind suggests that physical activity can 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 can help to boost energy levels and reduce tiredness during the day. Studies have also shown that moderate aerobic activity can help to improve sleep quality.

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

A group of runners in a park

5. Exercise can help to protect brain health and function

Some studies have shown that regular exercise has positive effects on cognition such as memory and attention for those over the age of 50. 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 into school age children and found a positive association between physical activity and cognitive function.

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

Discover the top 10 foods to boost your brainpower.

How much exercise should I do?

For optimum health, everyone should aim to be physically active every day, if they can.

The 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.

Enjoyed this? Now read…

How to exercise for free
What to eat for a workout
The best fitness trackers for exercise lovers
The best home gym equipment to buy
What should I eat if I exercise in the morning?
What should I eat if I exercise in the evening?

This article was published on 17th January 2020.


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.