You may know that being physically active can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. Exercise also helps prevent age-related declines in muscle size and aerobic capacity. Aside from the well-known benefits of regular exercise on leading a long and healthy life (also known as the healthspan), there are other important advantages that may surprise you.
- Healthier blood vessels: In people who aren’t very active, blood vessel function is impaired following a workout. Regular exercise protects your blood vessels from exercise-induced damage. Lifelong exercisers also have more capillaries—tiny blood vessels—than people who are less active. This is important because capillaries help deliver nutrients such as oxygen to the body and get rid of waste.
- Healthier gut: The bacteria that live in the gut—called the microbiome—has gained great attention recently because of the large role it plays in how your body functions. Being physically fit is linked to more diversity among gut bacteria and therefore better gut health. Physical activity also protects your blood vessels from the short-term increases in blood sugar, insulin and cholesterol levels after you eat a high-sugar or high-fat meal. Our laboratory at the University of Delaware also recently found that high-salt diets can impair blood pressure control, but highly physically active people are protected.
- Blood pressure control: The baroreflex helps keep your blood pressure under control both at rest and during exercise. Regular exercise prevents age-related drops in baroreflex function, which allows active older adults to function similarly to their much younger counterparts with less risk of high blood pressure.
- No Time? No worries!: If finding time to exercise is your biggest obstacle, you are not alone. Research has shown that short workouts and weight training can benefit your body if you work hard enough. One study found that just two minutes of high-intensity training can benefit your cells as much as a longer, moderate-intensity exercise session. Finally, remember that exercise does not need to be a daily trip to the gym. Playing sports, gardening or playing with your dog all count as activity.
Joseph C. Watso is a doctoral research fellow in the department of kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Delaware. Watso is interested in studying the role of lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise, in maintaining heart and blood vessel health throughout aging.