What does exercise actually do for us?

Exercise is 100% an important part of a healthy lifestyle, and whilst we regularly warn you not to use exercise as a method to lose weight, we still most definitely encourage some regular exercise to improve your health and fitness.

Physical activity guidelines

The UK government have recently revised their physical activity guidelines, and now suggest that adults should aim for:

  • some physical activity every day of the week – any activity is better than no activity.
  • 2 days a week, some strengthening activity should take place – this doesn’t mean that you have to go and lift weights twice a week, but you should take part in activity that will build strength, such as; gardening, carrying heavy shopping, or resistance exercise such as squats or push ups.
  • across the week 150 minutes of moderate exercise (brisk walking or cycling) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (running, HIIT) should be accumulated. Very vigorous activity can be used in shorter durations also, or a combination of all three types of exercise.
  • time spent sedentary should be minimised, and long periods of inactivity should be broken up whenever possible, with light physical activity.

The main change in these new guidelines from the 2011 version is a shift towards maintaining daily physical activity and reducing long periods of inactivity.

The reason for this is because sitting for long periods is thought to slow metabolism.   It is also thought that by sitting for long periods, our bodies essentially start to shut down and our muscles become inactive.  A slow metabolism affects the body’s ability to regulate blood sugars and blood pressure and break down body fat.  The panel of experts, who wrote the guidelines stopped short of setting a time limit for how much sitting we should do in one day, but the chair of the panel recommends that we take an active break from sitting every 30 minutes, and some countries such as the US, Australia and Finland have made recommendations that children limit screen time to between and 1 and 2 hours.

Studies on astronauts have shown that living in a weightless environment for long periods of time accelerates bone and muscle loss and the ageing progress. Sitting replicates this to a lesser degree, according to experts, and therefore we need to keep moving to prevent the ageing process. They go on to say that “Breaking up sitting time engages your muscles and bones, and gives all our bodily functions a boost – a bit like revving a car’s engine.”

Why do we need to change?

In the past, probably right up to the 1980’s, our lifestyles would have been a lot more active. We had less gadgets in the home so our domestic duties required us to be more physical, our jobs were more physical and we used cars and public transport less.

Everything we do this day and age, has been changed to make things easier for us and to save us time, to allow us to get more done. Even the way we watch TV means we sit for longer periods without moving, we don’t have to get up to change the channel or put a video or DVD on, because we do everything through our remote controls.  We can even flick forward through the breaks – so we don’t get up half way through a program to make a brew anymore.

Generally in the past, our lives would have been more physical, even if you think about shopping for food, we would have probably gone to more than one shop for our food, on a couple of days a week, in the town centre rather than driving to a retail park and visiting one store to do a whole shop for the week.

Whilst technology has improved our lives in many ways, it has led us to being less active and has potentially made us lazy.

A lot more jobs are sedentary these days too. A lot of work is computer based, which ties us to a desk for long periods of time. Manual type work is very much reduced, even manufacturing work is very much technology assisted now.

And this change in lifestyle has obviously had an affect on our health. There is a rise in people who are overweight and obese, and an increase in lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes and some cancers. So   for the first time in history, the majority of the first world’s population is having to purposely incorporate physical activity into their lifestyles to keep them healthy rather than just naturally having active lifestyles.

The link

The link was first made between illness and inactivity way back in the 1950’s. A report was published in the medical journal The Lancet, by Professor Jeremy Morris after a 3 year study of men who worked for the London Transport Executive.

He studied the medical records and sickness of 31000 men aged between 35 and 64, employed in various roles for the executive.  He looked at sickness absence, the reason for it, medical records from GPs following these sickness absences and death certificates of any men who died during the study.

He particularly focused on the rates of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD), and found that those workers who had more physically active jobs (the conductors) had much lower rates of CHD compared to those who were less active (the drivers) who had higher rates of CHD. And more importantly those active workers who did have the disease, didn’t have it in as severe a form as those who were physically inactive.

This study is considered to be the cornerstone of research around the effects of physical activity and has been used as a basis  for further research looking at the affects of physical activity on health within occupations, social classes and on different body sizes.

Why does exercise keep us healthy?

The effects of exercise go beyond just the physical results of improved body shape, strength and improved cardio-vascular fitness.  Regular exercise improves our bones strength, protecting our skeleton in older age and it also reduces our risk of many diseases such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

Your heart

Not only does cardio vascular exercise improve the function of the heart muscle, but it also increases the levels of good cholesterol in our blood, reducing the risk of high blood pressure and strokes as well as heart diseases.

Your skeleton

Strength training (either using weights, your body weight or just doing strenuous lifting) causes our muscles to grow, making movement easier, and also increases our bone density.  Keeping up with this sort of exercise into later life can help to prevent diseases such as osteoporosis from developing. Keeping our muscles strong (particularly our core muscles which help our balance) can also help to prevent falls and therefore reduce the risk of broken bones.


Risks of cancer are reduced significantly when we are active. Breast cancer risk is reduced by 25%, and womb cancer risk is reduced by 33%.  Also because exercise helps to manage our weight, by staying a healthy weight reduces cancer risk, as being overweight or obese is now a major risk factor for cancer.

Visceral fat

Visceral fat is the fat stored within our abdomen and is a huge risk factor for many diseases. You can’t necessarily tell if you have visceral fat, but the chances are if you carry weight around your middle, you will be carrying visceral fat. Visceral fat attaches itself to our organs and can cause problems such as fatty liver disease.  It is also a risk factor for breast cancer, colo-rectal cancer, stroke, heart attack and heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Whilst this may sound terrifying the good news is that exercise actually helps to get rid of visceral fat.  Visceral fat is particularly responsive to cardio exercise such as hiit, brisk walking or jogging.

Reducing stress levels also helps to reduce fat – as it is responsive to reductions in the stress hormone cortisol.

Mental Health

Speaking of reducing stress – exercise has a massive impact on maintaining a healthy mind and mental state. Our mental health is so important and with our fast paced lives these days, life can get pretty stressful. So some moderate exercise that gets you out of breath, increases the happy hormones dopamine and seratonin. Exercise has been shown to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, relieve stress and improve your mood. And I for one agree with that totally. I get grumpy if I don’t work out regularly!

Our physical and mental health are intrinsically linked, with physical illness putting us at risk of mental illness, and mental illness putting us at risk of physical illness, so if we can do one thing to prevent all this general ill health, lets do it. In fact, the UK’s top doctors say that if they could put what exercise gives you into a pill, and prescribe it for the nation, they would do, but unfortunately that isn’t possible. Exercise really is a cure-all (or a cure-many, at the very least).


Exercise actually gives us more energy. Everyone has experienced the workout they didn’t want to do, then feeling great afterwards – the phrase ‘no-one regretted a workout’ is so true.  Exercise also promotes better sleep allowing you to fall asleep quicker, stay asleep for longer and experience a deeper sleep too.

So next time, you are thinking of dodging that workout, just remind yourself how much good it is doing you. Just because exercise doesn’t equal weight loss, doesn’t mean it isn’t benefiting you. So get on your gym gear and get moving!

This week!

Do you meet the Physical Activity Guidelines? If not don’t go in at the deep end and aim for the full 2 and a half hours a week, just start and build slowly. If you are already active, do a bit more. Incorporate it into your every day life and most of all enjoy the endorphins!

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