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These Little-Known Exercise Benefits Can Have a Huge Impact on Your Health

Weight loss and building lean muscle mass are well-known exercise benefits, but here are 5 more that you may not know (but should).

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Exercise strengthens the heart, builds muscle, protects bones and makes you all-over healthy. What you may not know: working out banishes PMS, builds new brain cells, seriously improves your sex life and more. Here are five surprising science-backed exercise benefits you never knew about (but should).

It makes your periods easier

Breaking a sweat can minimize moodiness, cramping, fatigue and other PMS woes. The reason: aerobic activities amp up heart rate, dampen the effects of stress-promoting cortisol and boost the brain’s production of endorphins—chemicals that soothe irritability, enhance mood and encourage a sense of well-being. Endorphins also interact with brain receptors involved in the body’s perception of pain, easing period-related cramping and discomfort.

In one study, women who followed an hour-long aerobic exercise regimen three times a week showed significant improvements in both physical and psychological well-being; in other research, training reduced irritability, agitation, breast swelling and pre-period food bingeing. Besides aerobics, yoga also eases PMS. In one study, women who followed a regular yoga practice had fewer cramps, less bloating, increased energy and a more positive outlook; some postures, like fish and cobra, were especially effective at calming cramps. Now that’s an exercise benefit we can get behind.

It alters your brain (in a really good way)

Getting your blood pumping triggers actual physiological changes to the brain that upgrade memory, enhance cognitive abilities and generally make you smarter. Research shows exercise that boosts heart rate increases levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that prompts the development of new brain cells, creates new blood vessels and improves connections between areas of the brain linked with memory and learning.

In one study of young adults, aerobic exercise four times a week significantly improved cognitive abilities like memory, reasoning, planning and problem solving. And by reducing inflammation, minimizing shrinkage and protecting against age-related changes to the brain, a regular workout routine also lowers the risk of memory loss, cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

It pretty much guarantees a good night’s sleep

Working out may end your tossing, turning and next-day exhaustion: research shows regular exercise shortens the time it takes to doze off, slashes nighttime waking and helps you wake up rested and refreshed. In one study, people who followed a ten-week regimen fell asleep faster and slept more soundly; other studies show physical activity significantly improves sleep in people who struggle with chronic insomnia, and may be as effective as prescription medications. One reason: working out lessens stress and balances mood, easing depression and anxiety that can interfere with restful slumber.

Some research also suggests it influences circadian rhythms, resetting the body’s internal clock to normalize sleep. And exercise impacts brain chemistry, upping the release of GABA—a calming neurotransmitter that quiets the brain—and increasing levels of serotonin, used by the body to synthesize snooze-inducing melatonin. (But those happy endorphins triggered by exercise can boost brain activity and keep you awake; work out at least two hours before you head to bed to let levels dissipate.)

It puts you in the mood

Here’s an alluring exercise benefit you probably didn’t know. That early-morning spin class may send you back to the bedroom: research shows regular exercise amps up libido, improves performance and increases sexual gratification. It works by enhancing blood flow to the genitals, activating the sympathetic nervous system and influencing neurotransmitters involved in libido, and research suggests just 30 minutes of aerobic movement three times weekly can measurably heighten arousal and drive. For men, strength training boosts levels of testosterone, the hormone associated with sexual desire and performance, and research shows exercise significantly improves erectile function.

In one study, even 30 minutes of daily walking lowered the risk of erectile dysfunction by as much as 41 percent. In another study, yoga enhanced arousal in women, increasing lubrication, pleasure, orgasm and sexual satisfaction. And a regular fitness routine reduces desire-dampening stress, promotes positive body image and uplifts confidence between the sheets.

It makes you live longer (and not just by strengthening your heart).

Your daily fitness habits protect more than just your ticker: physical inactivity is linked with higher overall mortality, and regular exercisers are less likely to die from any cause—not just heart disease. Working out dampens inflammation, enhances immunity and protects cells from damage, and research links increased activity with a reduced risk of 13 specific types of cancer.

Studies show women who engage in moderate-to-vigorous exercise have a significantly lower risk of breast cancer, and in one review, the most active people were 21 percent less likely to get colon cancer. Other research suggests the more you move, the lower your chances of death from all causes.

And if you’re sitting at a desk all day, a 30-minute stint on the treadmill won’t cut it; people who spend most of their time sitting are more likely to die from all causes, even if they exercise for a portion of the day. Keep that daily workout, but add all-around movement; take breaks from your desk to run up and down the stairs, jump rope or walk around the block.

For more exercise benefits, keep reading:

Sitting most of the day? Try exercise snacking

Can exercise slow aging?

Supplements to boost athletic performance