© 2019 by Derrick W. Spell, MD, FACP

  • Derrick W. Spell, MD FACP

The Various Benefits of Exercise

Updated: Feb 12

Exercise has been recommended by doctors for thousands of years. Hippocrates was the first documented physician to recommend exercise as a treatment of disease. Today, doctors recognize that there are numerous health benefits from regular exercise. The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology both recommend regular aerobic physical activity to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, both groups also advocate regular physical exercise for the treatment and prevention of obesity. (Spoiler alert, exercise helps you to lose weight AND keep it off!)



Walking is a great way to get started!

First and foremost, exercise burns calories. This caloric loss is a valuable component of any weight loss endeavor. With increasing physical activity, your body burns calories over and above your basal metabolic rate. The number of calories you burn with physical activity is dependent upon three things: your weight, the type (or intensity) of exercise, and the duration of exercise. For example, someone that weighs 220 pounds will burn roughly 160 calories walking at a moderate pace (about 3 miles/hour) for 30 minutes. Simple math shows that by walking four to five times a week, this person will burn the caloric equivalent of a pound in a month. It is important to understand the arithmetic of exercise because most people (including physicians) tend to overestimate how much physical activity plays a role with weight loss. On the other hand, regular exercise plays a fundamental role in both overall good health as well as long-term weight management.


Other beneficial changes occur in those that exercise regularly. Improved blood circulation results in a more efficient method for oxygen transfer to muscle tissue. This improved aerobic capacity facilitates the consumption of fat stores instead of the carbohydrate and glycogen reserves. Exercise also enhances insulin signaling in fat and muscle tissue. This leads to lower blood sugar levels in addition to less secretion of insulin and insulin-like growth factor. (These physiologic improvements will also decrease inflammation!) Strength training promotes the development of skeletal muscle, which in turn helps to preserve your muscle mass and your BMR even as you lose weight. Exercise also improves blood pressure, which contributes to lower risks of heart attack and stroke.


There are a multitude of psychological benefits to working out. Regular exercise has been shown to produce overall improvements in mood and self-esteem. Working out is an effective treatment for depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In fact, exercise may be as effective as some medications (like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) for some people diagnosed with depression. People who are self-described “emotional eaters” may also find it easier to control emotionally triggered eating with frequent exercise. (I can vouch for that!) Similarly, people with demanding lives that “find the time” to exercise often report less stress as well as an improved ability to cope with stress.


There is one more benefit that merits further discussion. It connects the mental and physical benefits of exercise. Joggers and runners affirm that after twenty or thirty minutes of continuous exertion, they often enter a state of mind referred to as the “runner’s high.” During this emotional state, they become less aware of themselves as they get more engrossed in the rhythm or “flow” of the exercise. These feelings of euphoria can be quite rewarding! Current evidence suggests that these mental states are caused by hormones called euphoriants. These hormones include endorphins (short for endogenous morphines), phenylethylamine (also known as endogenous amphetamine), and anandamide. The latter is a naturally produced cannabinoid (related to the Cannabis plant) messenger in the brain that may be responsible for some of the mood lifting effects of exercise described before.


In the next blog, we will learn more about exercise and how you can get started!

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