What is the healthiest exercise?
Want to start exercising and not sure where to start? Discover the benefits of running, swimming, cycling and yoga – and get tips on how to get moving
With so much information about the benefits of exercise and so many types to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start. Each one promises certain benefits to our health so it can get quite confusing. Below, we've outlined the main benefits of popular workouts – we hope this makes it easier to feel motivated and stay moving.
Why is exercise good for you?
Regular exercise has a whole heap of benefits for both physical and mental health. Physical benefits include improvements to blood lipid profile – such as reducing cholesterol and blood pressure and therefore a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. It helps manage weight, blood sugar levels and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. Exercise plays a vital role in building bone density and muscle strength, which can reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures, plus improving balance and flexibility. Exercise improves mood, and decreases feelings of anxiety, depression and stress. It also helps with sleep, which in turn provides more energy and wellbeing.
What are the different types of exercise?
A combination of the following different types of exercise may provide the most benefits:
- Aerobic exercise - generally known as cardio. The word aerobic means ‘with oxygen’ and includes things like running, high intensity interval training (HIIT), cycling and most team sports. These types of activities are using the heart, lungs and circulatory system. The main benefits of aerobic exercise are internal: improving the capacity of heart and muscles to utilise oxygen.
- Anaerobic exercise includes strength training exercises such as weight lifting/resistance exercise. Anaerobic means the body is creating movement without using oxygen. The downside of this is that we can only sustain this type of exercise (without oxygen) for short bursts of activity.
- Stretching exercises are important to include to make the muscles longer and more flexible, which increases the range of motion and reduces pain and the risk of injury.
- Balancing exercises such as tai chi or yoga, are especially important as we get older to prevent the risk of falls and fractures.
It is recommended that adults aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week plus strength/stretching/balancing exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles.
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Health benefits of running
Running is a free and easily accessible form of exercise. Jogging or running regularly is a great way to improve your overall physical health. It can:
- Improve heart health
- Improve lung health
- Reduce the risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease and type 2 diabetes
Health benefits of cycling
Choosing to cycle rather than drive or take public transport can save you money and help the environment. Regular cycling can reduce the risk of a number of illnesses including:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
Cycling can also boost your mood and help you maintain a healthy weight. It is a low-impact exercise, meaning it’s easier on the joints compared to high-impact aerobic activities like running. Read more about what to eat before cycling.
Health benefits of yoga
There are many different types of yoga and the most important thing is to find the style that suits your ability level. Yoga is great for helping to build strength, balance and flexibility. It also focuses on breathing which can boost physical and mental wellbeing.
There is evidence that yoga can be beneficial if you have:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Aches and pains, including some types of arthritis
Health benefits of swimming
Swimming is a great all-round form of physical activity. It’s ideal if you want to be more active and stay healthy, whatever your age or fitness level. Regular swimming is proven to reduce your risk of serious illnesses, like heart disease and diabetes. Exercising in water means reduced strain on the joints compared to other high impact exercise.
Swimming can help you to
- Lose weight
- Improve general flexibility
- Increase strength
- Improve mobility
Find out what to eat before a swim in order to get the best from your session.
Health benefits of cold-water swimming
Submerging yourself in cold water causes the body to go into ‘fight or flight’ response which includes releasing the hormone cortisol and increasing heart and breathing rate. Repeatedly putting yourself into cold water has a number of benefits including:
• Positive impact on cardiovascular risk factors such as lipid profile and blood pressure
• Improve tolerance to stress
• Improve self esteem and mental resilience
• Increased immunity
How do I start exercising?
It really is as simple as picking a day, putting on the appropriate footwear/clothing and getting out there. If you’re new to exercise start slowly and set small goals – you might like to start with walking. As you notice your fitness improving, you can plan in some different activities, or increase the intensity, but it’s important to choose exercise that you enjoy otherwise you’re less likely to do it. Remember to warm up and cool down, and make sure you drink enough water, especially if you are starting with cardio exercise.
There are a number of apps such as Couch to 5K which guide you through the steps of starting out to running 5km.
Are there any safety issues to consider before I start?
Starting too fast or going to hard with exercise is likely to lead to injury. The key is to start slowly and gradually build up in frequency, intensity and duration.
Make sure you are wearing appropriate clothing and footwear and aim to develop an exercise routine that includes all the different types of exercise. If you haven’t exercised for a long time or have a serious health condition then consult a doctor/relevant health professional before starting.
Overall, what is the healthiest exercise?
The ‘healthiest’ exercise is down to the individual, and their goals. What is clear is that any exercise is better than none at all, and finding something that you like means you’re more likely to stick to it. The broad government guidelines are for 30 minutes of activity, five days a week. If the goal is weight loss, then it’s important to remember that nutrition, sleep, and genetics all play a part. Consistent exercise, and a mix of resistance training and aerobic exercise, can improve your physical health and mental well-being, which in turn encourages healthy habits. When it comes to exercising, focus on sustainability, not a quick fix.
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