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The Benefits of Exercise

By Alan Frost, updated November, 2013
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The benefits of exercise have been well documented, and it seems that each time a new study comes out they find yet another benefit to add to the list.

Exercise has been shown to have a beneficial effect on:

  • General physical health: Among many other things, it lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer; it positively affects cholesterol levels; it has a positive effect on conditions like arthritis and allergies; it strengthens muscles, tendons, and bones; and it helps maintain an optimal bodyweight.
  • General mental health: It improves mental performance and has a positive effect on depression and anxiety.
  • Physical performance: Apart from the health benefits, exercise allows us to be stronger, faster, and have more endurance. Essentially it allows us to perform on a higher level, and it gives us more energy to expend.

In the section on the different kinds of exercise, I identified 5 different exercise categories. In this section I will use these to look at the benefits of each type of exercise.

Cardiovascular Training:

This refers to steady pace moderate-intensity workouts (e.g. jogging, biking, etc.). Cardiovascular training is arguably the single most important type of training. Cardio has a positive effect on:

  • Preventing and managing heart disease
  • Preventing and managing diabetes
  • Improving and preventing deterioration of mental sharpness and memory
  • Relieving depression and anxiety (by affecting our hormone balance)
  • Burning body fat: By burning calories and also improving your muscles' ability to burn fat as energy
  • Improving general physical performance
  • Improved physical recovery (e.g. from more intensive kinds of training)
  • Increasing good cholesterol (HDL) and lowering bad cholesterol (LDL)
  • Decreasing risk of bone loss
  • Helping prevent/treat certain types of cancer

Interval Training:

Interval training refers to workouts that alternate between periods of low intensity and periods of high intensity. E.g. alternating between jogging/walking and running. It has the advantage that it requires shorter sessions than cardio and can deliver many health benefits. It is generally agreed that interval workouts have certain benefits over regular cardio:

  • Burns fat faster
  • Increases fitness levels better
  • Is better for sport performance (since most sports are in fact examples of interval training)
  • It may have a more profound impact on your metabolism
  • Takes less time

Furthermore, evidence suggests that interval training can delivery similar health benefits to cardio, sometimes more effectively, e.g. positvely affecting cholesterol and reducing cardiovascular events (Shiraev & Barclay, 2012). However, the down sides are:

  • It is a high impact form of exercise, placing greater strain on the joints
  • Greater risk of injury
  • Higher risk of over-training
  • May not be appropriate for everyone — check with your doctor

Resistance Training:

As the name implies, resistance training refers to workouts where you work against resistance, e.g. weight training, cables, band training, lifting your own body weight, etc. For a long time resistance training was cardio's ugly cousin. However, over the last couple of decades, it has become a mainstream recommendation for people of all ages.

Resistance training has the following benefits:

  • Improves bone strength and density. This is particularly important as you age.
  • Increases/preserves lean muscle mass. Gaining lean muscle improves not only physical strength, it also burns calories. Similarly, when losing weight, one of the greatest hindrances is the loss of muscle, which negatively affects your metabolism.
  • Strengthens connective tissue and tendons.
  • Increases strength, anaerobic endurance, and power.
  • Reduces stress
  • Decreases risk of metabolic syndrome
  • Helps prevent and manage diabetes
  • Boosts brain function and has been linked with a positive effect for Alzheimers patients(Kounang, 2012).
  • Has been linked with having a positive effect on patients with Parkinson's disease(David et al., 2012).
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Balance/Core Training:

Core training focuses on the muscles that stabilize your body, found primarily in your mid & lower back and your abdominal region. It has the following benefits:

  • Reduced risk of injury when exercising.
  • Improved strength and performance — a strong core will help improve power and agility.
  • Improved functional strength — a strong core helps you perform better in sports and carry out movements in "real" life that require many muscles working together.
  • Improved balance and stability
  • Improved posture

Flexibility Training or Stretching:

  • Increased flexibility & prevention of decreased flexibility, which may result from exercising.
  • Improved circulation. Aids in removal of toxins form muscles.
  • Improved coordination
  • Alleviation of lower back pain

So what does this mean? Basically, the ideal exercise routine for most people should contain a combination of cardio, resistance training, interval training, core training, and stretching. The exact proportions should be tailored to your specific needs. E.g. a sample weekly workout plan might include 4 cardiovascular workouts of 40 minutes duration, 3 weight lifting workouts of 60 minutes duration (including core work & stretching), and 1 interval training session of 20 minutes duration.

This concludes this article on the benefits of exercise. To read more on designing your routine, please see the section on creating a fitness plan.

References

David FJ, Rafferty MR, Robichaud JA, Prodoehl J, Kohrt WM, Vaillancourt DE, et al. Progressive resistance exercise and Parkinson's disease: a review of potential mechanisms. Parkinsons Dis. 2012;2012: 124527. PMid:22191068 PMCid:PMC3236435.

Kounang N (2012), Strength training key in preventing Alzheimer's, The Chart, CNN Health, http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/16/strength-training-key-in-preventing-alzheimers/

Shiraev T, Barclay G. Evidence based exercise – clinical benefits of high intensity interval training. Aust Fam Physician. 2012 Dec;41(12):960-2.



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