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The incredible benefits of exercise & physical activity

Updated: May 23

“If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine.”

-Robert Butler, The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 1978 [1]


When I first started teaching yoga in my mid-twenties, I used to think it was sacrilege to put yoga in the same camp as exercise. Yoga is a multifaceted path toward spiritual freedom while exercise is merely a way to get fit, right?


While I still feel that yoga has a unique approach to spiritual connection, my studying of anatomy and physiology has helped me to realize that, physiologically, yoga asana is most definitely a form of exercise. And that is a good thing — because exercise provides us with so many benefits!


While exercise is often portrayed as a means to shed extra weight or sculpt a toned physique, its benefits extend far beyond physical appearance, encompassing a vast realm of positive impacts on your overall well-being. From enhancing physical health and reducing the risk of chronic diseases to boosting mental clarity and promoting emotional resilience, exercise truly is a miracle drug! Read on to learn more.


The difference between exercise and physical activity

Physical activity and exercise are often used interchangeably (even by me), but there’s a difference between the two. Physical activity is any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. This includes a wide range of activities, such as walking, running, gardening, housework, and playing sports. Physical activity is basically any movement that gets your body moving and uses up energy.


Exercise is a subset of physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive, with an objective of improving or maintaining physical fitness. In other words, exercise is physical activity that is specifically designed to improve your physical health.


The main difference between physical activity and exercise is that exercise is planned and intentional. You may not think of walking your dog as exercise, but if you do it regularly and with the intention of improving your cardiovascular health, then it becomes exercise.


Matt in chatturanga yoga pose, low plank
Yoga; What a great way to exercise!


Which is better?

The next logical question is: which is better? And, will unplanned physical activity give me the same results as exercise? As always, it depends on your goals.


If your singular goal is to improve your one-rep max deadlift, tidying the kids’ toys up from the floor won’t get you there. And if your goal is to complete a marathon in under three hours, a bit of gardening on Sunday won’t cut the mustard. But for the purposes of reducing disease risk, it doesn’t matter if your physical activity is neatly organized into 45-minute, high-intensity sessions or a mish-mash of dog walks and stair climbs while carrying the groceries — so long as you are meeting the weekly recommended guidelines for physical activity (more on that later).


Physical health benefits

Engaging in regular physical activity orchestrates a symphony of benefits. Exercise strengthens your heart, improving its efficiency in pumping blood and delivering oxygen-rich nutrients to your body's tissues. This enhanced cardiovascular health translates into a reduced risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure [2].


Physical activity also plays a pivotal role in weight management, helping you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. By increasing calorie expenditure and promoting muscle growth, physical activity creates a calorie deficit, aiding in weight loss or preventing weight gain [2]. Additionally, exercise strengthens bones and muscles, reducing the risk of decreased bone density (osteoporosis) and decreased muscle mass (sarcopenia).


Mental and emotional benefits

The benefits of exercise extend beyond the physical realm, profoundly impacting your mental and emotional well-being. Physical activity has been shown to enhance cognitive function, improving memory, attention, and overall mental sharpness [3]. Physical activity also promotes the release of natural mood-boosting chemicals that elevate your spirits and alleviate stress, proving to be an effective tool in combating depression and anxiety [4]. Physical activity provides a healthy outlet for stress and tension, promoting emotional resilience and well-being.


Disease prevention and chronic disease management: A shield against illnesses

Exercise serves as a powerful shield against various chronic diseases, reducing the risk of developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and arthritis. Physical activity improves insulin sensitivity, aiding in blood sugar control and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes . Exercise also helps to reduce systemic inflammation, a key factor in the development of chronic diseases [5].


For individuals living with chronic diseases, exercise can play a crucial role in disease management. Regular physical activity can help manage blood sugar levels in individuals with diabetes, reduce pain and improve joint function in individuals with arthritis, and enhance overall quality of life in individuals with a range of chronic conditions [6].


No wonder Robert Butler described exercise as the most beneficial medicine available!


How much physical activity do I need?

To obtain the amazing benefits of physical activity, the World Health Organization (WHO) provides guidelines for different age groups, including adults. WHO recommends that adults engage in:

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week

  • Plus, muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week.


WHO also recommends reducing sedentary time (time spent being inactive) and reminds people that anything (even a five-minute walk) is better than nothing.


ACSM and CDC recommendations
Physical activity recommendations

The scientific rationale behind these guidelines is rooted in extensive research on the health benefits of regular physical activity. The guidelines are based on a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence on the relationship between physical activity and health. 

The amount of physical activity recommended by the WHO is based on the amount of activity that has been shown to provide significant health benefits. More activity is generally better for health, but even small amounts of activity can make a difference.


WHO typically reviews and updates its guidelines on physical activity every 5 to 10 years. However, the exact frequency can vary based on emerging scientific evidence and the need for revisions to reflect the latest research findings.


The decision to update guidelines is influenced by advancements in scientific knowledge, changes in global health patterns, and evolving understanding of the relationship between physical activity and health. The WHO follows a systematic process that involves reviewing a substantial body of evidence before making any updates or changes to the existing guidelines.


The evidence shows that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of a wide range of chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and depression. It can also help to improve bone health, mental health, and sleep quality.


The WHO guidelines are a good starting point for most adults. However, some people may need to do more or less physical activity depending on their individual health and fitness level. It is always best to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise program.


Incorporating exercise into your life: Practical strategies

The key to unlocking the treasure trove of exercise benefits lies in consistently incorporating physical activity into your daily routine. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a fan of yoga, so you can carry on as you are but with the knowledge that your yoga practice is affording you many benefits beyond “a good old stretch.”


If you are not meeting the physical activity guidelines, start by finding activities you enjoy, whether it's brisk walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, or of course yoga. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.


Gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts as your fitness level improves. Incorporate a variety of activities to keep your workouts engaging and prevent boredom. Find a workout partner or join a group fitness class for added motivation and support. The science shows that exercising in a group or with a buddy helps you achieve your fitness goals [7].


The United States Department of Human Health has a great activity planner to help you ensure you are getting your weekly recommended amount of physical activity — and of course yoga is one of the many options listed.


***Remember: An easy way to incorporate yoga into your life is to join our online yoga classes.***


Conclusion: Embracing exercise for a healthier, happier you

Exercise is not merely a chore; it's an investment in your well-being. By incorporating physical activity into your life, you embark on a journey towards a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling life. Embrace the transformative power of exercise and reap the rewards of a healthier body, mind, and spirit.



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