The Health Benefits of Exercise

Engaging in regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your overall health, well-being, and longevity. Exercise helps to keep your cardiovascular system healthy, to improve your cognitive function, your mood, and your sleep, and to help you remain healthy well into your old age.

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How Exercise Makes You Healthy

Regular exercise has several beneficial effects on your body that can improve the function of your musculoskeletal system, your cardiovascular system, your respiratory system, your metabolism, and even your brain. Engaging in regular exercise significantly reduces your odds of developing heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, lung disease, and some kinds of cancer. People who exercise live longer, and (possibly more importantly), suffer fewer of the chronic illnesses and infirmities that often make old age difficult.

Musculoskeletal Benefits

Some of the most obvious benefits of exercise relate to your musculoskeletal system: you get stronger muscles and bones. As you age, you will have less chance of developing serious joint problems and fractures, and your balance (and chances of falling) will be reduced. Some specific musculoskeletal benefits of exercise include:

  • Exercise increases the size and strength of your muscle fibers.
  • Exercise increases the strength of your ligaments and tendons.
  • Exercise increases the number and density of the capillaries that supply blood to your skeletal muscles.
  • Exercise increases the number and the size of the mitochondria (the power plants) in your muscle tissue, which allows your muscle to burn more energy.

Cardiovascular Benefits

People who exercise regularly have a much lower chance of developing serious heart disease and vascular disease.

In particular:

  • Exercise improves your overall cardiac function so that you can pump more blood with each heartbeat.
  • Exercise reduces your blood pressure, especially if you have essential hypertension.
  • Exercise improves your overall vascular function.
  • Exercise helps to prevent atherosclerosis, the disease that causes heart attacks, and many kinds of stroke.

Respiratory Benefits

Regular exercise helps to prevent chronic lung disease:

  • Exercise improves your lung capacity.
  • Exercise increases the blood flow to your lungs, allowing the lungs to deliver more oxygen into the blood.

Metabolic Benefits

Regular exercise greatly improves your overall metabolic function, which helps to maintain your general health:

  • Exercise increases your muscles' ability to burn fat more efficiently.
  • Exercise increases the mobilization of fatty acids into the bloodstream, from your fat deposits. (These last two effects of regular exercise “tune” your metabolism into more of a fat-burning machine.)
  • Exercise reduces your triglyceride blood levels.
  • Exercise increases your HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol).
  • Exercise reduces insulin resistance. Regular exercise helps to prevent type 2 diabetes in people who are at increased risk for this disease.

Other Benefits

  • Exercise improves your immune function, which reduces your chance of infections.
  • Exercise appears to reduce your chances of getting breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and certain other gastrointestinal cancers.
  • Exercise helps to prevent gallstones.
  • Exercise helps to prevent the physical and cognitive decline of aging.
  • Exercise reduces your risk of Alzheimer's disease.
  • Exercise helps with smoking cessation.
  • Exercise plays an important role in preventing and treating obesity.
  • Exercise improves cognitive function in people of all ages.
  • In older people, regular exercise is associated with a reduced risk of falls.
  • In pregnant women, exercise lowers the risk of gestational diabetes and postpartum depression

A Word From Verywell

Given all the physiologic benefits it produces, it is easy to see how regular exercise can help to prevent cardiovascular disease.

In addition to the direct beneficial effects of exercise on the heart, regular exercise also improves several important cardiac risk factors. Exercise lowers blood pressure, helps prevent obesity, reduces triglyceride levels, increases HDL cholesterol levels, and improves insulin resistance (and thus helps to prevent or even reverse metabolic syndrome). An exercise routine has even been shown to be helpful in achieving smoking cessation.

Regular exercise is one of the most beneficial habits you can develop for your overall health, well-being, and longevity.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Medline Plus. Benefits of exercise.

  2. Porcari J, Bryant CX, Comana F. Exercise Physiology. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Company; 2015.

  3. Nystoriak MA, Bhatnagar A. Cardiovascular effects and benefits of exercise. Front Cardiovasc Med. 2018;5:135. doi:10.3389/fcvm.2018.00135

  4. Your lungs and exercise. Breathe (Sheff). 2016;12(1):97-100. doi:10.1183/20734735.ELF121

  5. Sylow L, Richter EA. Current advances in our understanding of exercise as medicine in metabolic disease. Current Opinion in Physiology. 2019;12:12-19

Additional Reading
  • Piercy KL, Troiano RP, Ballard RM, et al. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. JAMA 2018; 320:2020.

  • Proper KI, Singh AS, van Mechelen W, Chinapaw MJ. Sedentary Behaviors And Health Outcomes Among Adults: A Systematic Review Of Prospective Studies. Am J Prev Med 2011; 40:174.

  • Dumith SC, Hallal PC, Reis RS, Kohl HW 3rd. Worldwide Prevalence Of Physical Inactivity And Its Association With Human Development Index In 76 Countries. Prev Med 2011; 53:24.

By Richard N. Fogoros, MD
Richard N. Fogoros, MD, is a retired professor of medicine and board-certified in internal medicine, clinical cardiology, and clinical electrophysiology.