Stop Working Out to Lose Weight

While maintaining a healthy weight is one of the biggest draws to exercise, it shouldn’t be the only one. Here are just 8 of the benefits of a regular sweat session that have nothing to do with your waistline and everything to do with your health.
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Two people running

1. You’ll keep your body decades younger

If 40 is the new 20, then 75 may be the new 40. In a study from the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers compared a group of lifelong exercisers in their 70s to two groups: non-exercisers in their 70s and a group of young exercisers, roughly in their 20s. The lifelong exercisers had cardiovascular health similar to that of 40- or 45-year-olds as well as a lower risk of early death and higher quality of life. The older exercisers also had muscles with aerobic qualities comparable to the young exercisers, so in other words, full preservation. Bottom line? “Exercise wins,” says Scott Trappe, PhD, study co-author from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. “If you’re exercising, keep it going, and if you haven’t started yet, it’s never too late.”

Blood pressure illustration

2. You’ll control high blood pressure

One in three American adults has high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but if you’re taking medications, take heart: Exercise may be just as effective as medications in lowering blood pressure in people who already have high systolic blood pressure, according to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Various modes of exercise appear to reduce systolic blood pressure, the top number in a blood pressure reading. That includes endurance activities like running, playing soccer and doing high-intensity interval training; dynamic resistance training like lifting weight; isometric resistance training like planks; and a combination of endurance and dynamic resistance exercises. But don’t take this as permission to quit your meds: You still need to consult your doctor about the best treatment plan, researchers say.

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3. You could shake off depression

When compared with antidepressant medication, aerobic exercise, when performed under the supervision of exercise scientists working in mental health, showed significant antidepressive effects, according to a study from the journal Depression and Anxiety. In other words, “when depressed individuals do aerobic exercise, they experience a large improvement in depression compared with their peers who receive antidepressant, psychological therapies or treatment as usual,” says Ioannis Morres, PhD, postdoctoral fellow and physical exercise clinician at the University of Thessaly in Trikala, Greece. Credit the physical self-improvement, mental distraction, increased self- efficacy and higher levels of socializing that come with aerobic exercise. To get the same benefits, slot in 45 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise three times a week, and you’ll likely see improvements within four weeks. Even if you don’t have major depression, you’ll benefit. “A single session of aerobic exercise can significantly improve mood,” Morres adds.

Woman using kettlebells

4. Your gut microbiome will get healthier

When you exercise, you’re not only making organs like your heart and brain happier, you’re also satisfying the bacteria in your gut, called the gut microbiome. Case in point: Overweight women who completed six weeks of endurance training, doing three cycling workouts a week, experienced changes in the composition of their gut microbiome, namely a reduction in potentially inflammatory microbes (proteobacteria) as well as an increase in potentially beneficial microbes (akkermansia). Researchers suggest that with more akkermansia in your gut, you may not only get a boost in metabolism but also lower your diabetes risk.

5. You’ll be protected from heart disease

It’s no secret that exercise is good for your ticker. In fact, staying fit could cut your risk of heart attack by half, according to a study from the European Heart Journal. Although most people associate aerobic exercise with better heart health, don’t discount strength training. In a study presented at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology, researchers compared strength training and aerobic activity like walking and biking and found that everything aerobic activity was good for, strength training was better. For instance, while both activities lowered the risk of being overweight, strength training was associated with less diabetes and even helped reduce the risk of hypertension. “Muscle is an organ, and when it contracts, it secretes chemicals that have wide- ranging effects on the body, many of which help the heart,” says Maia Smith, PhD, study co-author and statistical epidemiologist at St. George’s University in Grenada, West Indies.

Woman playing tennis

6. You could learn a new motor skill faster

Learning to play the guitar or master the floss dance? It might be wise to schedule a quick bout of exercise after learning that new skill. In one study from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, people who exercised immediately after practicing a tracking skill on a computer had better motor-skill retention after 24 hours (which included a good night’s sleep). Researchers note that this could be due to an increase in metabolism, essentially bringing fresh blood to the brain. Bonus? Just 15 minutes of exercise can do the trick.

7. You’ll keep diabetes at bay

The American Diabetes Association has long recommended exercise as a preventive strategy against diabetes. But just going to the gym may not cut it. A recent study of 2,000 individuals aged 40 to 75 found that diabetes was less common in people who not only had good cardiorespiratory fitness but also did higher amounts of high-intensity physical activity (more than 22 minutes every week for men and over 30 minutes for women) and spent less time being sedentary during the day (less than 9.3 hours a day for men and 8.1 hours for women). The surprise? “A person who is considered to be fit in our study but has a high sitting time still has increased risk for diabetes and the metabolic syndrome compared to other fit people who sit less,” says Jeroen van der Velde, PhD, lead study author from Maastricht University in The Netherlands. One way devout gym-goers can lower their sit time? For every 30 minutes that you sit, take a quick standing or moving break.

Illustration of alarm clock on a pillow

8. You could sleep better

Although higher-quality sleep can boost your fitness performance, the opposite is true, too: Exercise can enhance your sleep. In a study in Advances in Preventive Medicine, 29 of the 34 studies evaluated concluded that exercise improved either the quality or duration of sleep, especially among middle-aged and older adults. Although aerobic exercise tended to have the strongest positive impact on sleep, even resistance training, yoga and tai chi were shown to improve it. But what if you’re stuck exercising close to bedtime? In a study from Experimental Physiology with 11 middle-aged men, logging a 30-minute high-intensity workout in the early evening didn’t disrupt sleep. Although researchers can’t say if women would get the same benefits, they say that as long as exercise isn’t hindering your usual sleep, exercise in the evening should be fine. One caveat: Make sure you’re not sacrificing sleep by moving your bedtime back just to log a workout.