Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Don’t Forget About the ‘Hidden’ Benefits of Exercise

Shawn Bender, PhD

Shawn Bender, PhD

I approached an article in The New York Times titled “To Lose Weight, Eating Less Is Far More Important Than Exercising More” with a bit of trepidation. I don’t disagree with the statement (or the science behind it), but I felt the importance of exercise could be dismissed if the title was misinterpreted. Reading the full article—which I am guilty of not always doing—revealed that the author fully acknowledges the importance of exercise beyond weight loss for overall health. “Exercise has a big upside for health beyond potential weight loss. Many studies and reviews detail how physical activity can improve outcomes in musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, pulmonary diseases, neurological diseases and depression,” he wrote. My compliments to the author!

One of the other advantages of exercise is a clear reduction in blood vessel disease and cardiovascular-related deaths. We can’t see these improvements like we could see a number on a scale, but the long-term value of exercise on the heart and blood vessels is immense.

The reasons for the cardiovascular benefits are complex, so let’s focus on one part of the puzzle. The inside of blood vessels is lined with a layer of cells, called endothelial cells, which is in contact with blood as it flows by. Endothelial cells play a critical role in normal blood vessel function. In conditions like obesity, these cells do not operate correctly, leading to blood vessel malfunction and disease, as my colleague and I recently discussed in a review article. Damage to these cells can predict future cardiovascular disease.

Exercise is key to keeping endothelial cells in good shape. Why? You may know that exercising muscles need more oxygen-rich blood to operate at their best. It turns out that getting more blood to muscles during exercise is also good for endothelial cells. Exposing them to the increased exercise-related blood flow protects the cells and improves overall blood vessel health.

Keeping endothelial cells healthy requires regular exposure to increased blood flow, so get up and walk around—even 10 minutes of walking benefits these cells (not to mention your entire cardiovascular system). Make exercise a regular part of daily life to promote overall health regardless of your weight. Go for a walk…and remember to always read the full article before you interpret the title!

Shawn Bender, PhD, is a research health scientist at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Missouri.

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