You may have noticed that people that exercise regularly just look healthier than the rest of us. In other words, they experience the physiological benefits of exercise. This is largely because their muscles are more firm and defined, their bodies are slim (except for bodybuilders) and they have more energy. In fact, experts have long understood that there exists a strong correlation between activity level and the “normal” symptoms of aging.1 In short, what we often refer to as ‘normal aging,’ is likely a result of inactivity and less so the result of actual aging. Regular exercise literally slows the aging process!
Some of these changes include heart and lung health, cholesterol levels, bone mass, joint movement, digestive and bowel function, immune system strength, sleep, sensory issues and intellectual acumen. And of course, these changes are always for the worse. But not so in those that participate in regular exercise. In fact, there are many physiological benefits of exercise, but not a single drawback short of plain overdoing it. Of course, this is not usually a problem for most folks.2
Better Heart and Lung Health
Perhaps the most important physiological benefits of exercise is improvement of the cardiovascular system. Both heart and lungs benefit significantly and become stronger. After all, the heart has one single, but super important job. That is to pump blood throughout the whole body. But remember, it NEVER stops as long as you are alive and manages to continuously pump more than a gallon of blood through 60,000 miles of vessels, beating some 100,000 times per day. That is roughly 2.5 billion times in an average life. On the other hand, the lungs are responsible for getting oxygen into the blood to be delivered throughout this seemingly endless network of tiny blood vessels. Thus, it is easy to see why you would want a stronger, more efficient heart and set of lungs, which can only be obtained through exercise.
Normally the heart’s ability to do its job decreases by about 60% between the ages of 25 and 85. Lung capacity can also drop some 50% and muscle strength by 20% by age 70. In fact, many scientists believe that heart and lung functions begin decreasing as early as age 20! On the other hand, regular exercise increases the size and strength of the heart and its muscles, vastly improving efficiency and staving off the “normal” decline of age.4
Lower Blood Pressure
Both measures of blood pressure are important and both tend to increase with age (for non-exercisers). Systolic pressure is the amount of pressure in blood vessels during a heartbeat, whereas diastolic is the pressure between heartbeats. On the other hand, diastolic pressure increases ‘with age’ and forces the heart to pump harder because of narrowing vessels and increased fluid volume. This harder pumping additionally causes an increase in systolic pressure. Just like with your lawn sprinklers, high pressure means higher risk of a rupture. And when a blood vessel ruptures, especially a big one, the consequences can be significant.
Of course, there are things you can do to decrease your blood pressure, obviously exercise is the most significant but there are still others. For instance, a major factor is stress. But activities such as meditation, yoga, hypnosis, biofeedback and others can help too.5 However, these should be in addition to exercise, never INSTEAD of it.
Ironically, exercise increases blood pressure (temporarily), so it is a good idea to start slow. You should also consult your doctor as well. In any case, some great exercises include weight lifting, walking, jogging and bicycling (including stationary). Whatever you choose to do, you should exercise for at least 20 minutes 3 days per week to really see the benefits.
Keep More of Your Hard Earned Muscle
As people get older, they typically see about a 10% decrease in muscle mass, but without a change in body weight. Furthermore, men in their 80’s can see an additional 20 lbs of muscle disappear. So how does one lose muscle, but maintain the same, or greater weight? By significantly increasing fat stores! Muscle is more dense than fat and so ‘normal aging’ brings less mass, more fat, and a larger body size.
But not all is lost! It turns out that exercise promotes muscle-building in the elderly, yet another of the physiological benefits. In a study by Tufts University, 10 nursing home residents (age 87-96) participated in a weight training program for 2 months. Indeed, thy nearly doubled their leg strength and increased the size of their thighs by 9%! In addition, their mobility improved too. If it can be this beneficial for people that are at the end of their life, imagine what it can do for you!
Controlling Your Body Fat
Studies abound documenting the weight-related benefits of regular exercise. Of course, it burns calories, but it also raises your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is roughly the amount of energy your body uses just sitting there. In other words, you can burn more calories flipping through the channels than people that don’t exercise. But to lose weight, you have to burn more than you consume, which becomes much easier when you burn calories through regular exercise and have a higher BMR. Effective weight loss usually means 1500 calories per day or less and at least 20 minutes of exercise 3 days per week, although more is even better.
Exercise Examples and Associated Calories Burned (30 min)
|Aerobic Exercise (intense) Calories Expended in 30 minutes
|Cycling (9.4 mph)
|Golf, pulling cart
|Handball or squash
|Ice or roller skating
|Jogging (5 mph)
|Running (8-minute mile)
|Stair climbing (moderate pace)
|Step aerobics (6-inch step)
|Step aerobics (8-inch step)
|Strength training (free weights)
|Walking (on pavement)
|Walking (treadmill at 3 mph)
|Walking (2 mph)
Glucose Tolerance and Insulin Resistance
Exercise is great for controlling your weight, but also your glucose tolerance and insulin resistance. Of course, issues here can and often do, lead to diabetes. Glucose tolerance refers to your body’s ability to use glucose (sugar) from the blood and if you experience insulin resistance, this process is not happening like it should. As a result, you experience high blood sugar, a dangerous problem. But as you ‘age,’ this is precisely what happens.
However, greater muscle activity from exercise increases the transportation of sugar in muscle cells, even without insulin. This is part of the reason that is so important to do so regularly, particularly for folks with diabetes or pre-diabetes. In fact, regular exercise may actually prevent diabetes in some cases in which a person would otherwise develop it.
Greater Bone Mass
At all times your body is forming and reabsorbing bone. Normally more bone is built than torn down until about age 35, after which this trend slowly reverses.
It turns out that ‘normal aging’ causes about 80% of women to suffer from osteoporosis. The beginning of this process is when more bone is being broken down that formed, eventually causing bones to become weak and brittle. Men experience bone loss as well, but their bones start out so much denser than women’s and they lose it more slowly, that it is usually not a problem. In fact, that is why women can lose as much as 2/3 of their bone and 6 inches of height.
Now that I have painted such a bleak picture, let us explore a way out. Exercise! Yes, it turns out that itstimulates bone mineralization. In fact, women who are thinner or experience lower estrogen levels are at higher risk for osteoporosis, both of which are typical in exercisers, yet exercise more than makes up for these. And it turns out that women who exercise have stronger, denser bones than women who do not. In fact, the bones that are most stressed as a result of impacts are the strongest.
It is ‘normal’ to see a decrease in joint fluid with age leading to joint problems. The most common joint problem is rheumatoid arthritis, a product of inflammation of the tissues around bones and cartilage. Since exercise improves cartilage maintenance, strengthens bone, strengthens surrounding muscles and ligaments and overall joint flexibility, rheumatoid sufferers can experience significant relief. Weight lifting may also increase synovial fluid distribution in joints.
With ‘normal’ aging comes a decrease in blood flow to the brain. That means a lot of bad things, particularly fewer neurotransmitters. These are the chemicals which make communication between brain cells possible. Chances are, you have heard of some common ones such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Each of these directly affects memory, attention, concentration and learning and are all reliant on oxygen for their formation. Exercise is a great way to increase blood flow and thus oxygenation to the brain as well as the rest of the body.
Neurotransmitters not only affect how and how well the brain works, but how you feel too. When there is a disturbance in these chemicals, depression, anxiety and all sorts of psychological problems may emerge. However, exercise helps to balance neurotransmitters and this is precisely why doctors often prescribe exercise to their depressed patients. But there’s a catch. Although all exercise is great, the more intense it is, the better the results.
Even if exercise didn’t make you live longer, the physiological benefits of exercise that result in feeling better would be worth it. However, exercise does increase your life span! One study for instance showed that participants who expended 2000 calories per week in exercise were 28% less likely to die. Even more encouraging is that those at 3500 calories were 50% less likely to die and had a 2.15 year greater life expectancy.
The most significant reason that exercisers tend to live longer is that they at lower risk for diseases that often end in death. For example, heart disease, diabetes and obesity are major killers with millions dying from these diseases each year. But exercisers are simply at a much lower risk for any disease.
What a Pain!
If you have weak back muscles, then you have back pain. Furthermore, if you have back pain, you are a ‘normal,’ non-exerciser. The fact is that exercisers experience far less back pain, and pain in general than their couch potato counterparts. Of course this is because of all the physiological benefits of exercise!
One doctor at the University of Washington School of Medicine for example uses exercise precisely to reduce patient hospital stays. While most doctors prescribe 2 weeks of bed rest for back pain patients, he does 2 days. This is because prolonged bed rest inevitably results in more back pain because of muscle atrophy, bone loss and even blood clots in the legs. In addition, patients find additional relief through activity, particularly weight lifting.