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You’ve probably heard more times than you can count that you need to exercise. But do you really know why? For starters, here are seven reasons:
1. Exercise can help you lose weight. This one’s a no-brainer, but there’s a reason exercise is part of most healthy weight loss plans. “Exercise can increase your metabolism, or the amount of fuel your body can use, which will facilitate weight loss,” says Clifford Edberg, RD, a personal trainer and program manager of personal training and nutrition coaching at Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
2. Exercise can help prevent heart disease and other chronic illnesses. “Disease doesn’t like activity, especially heart disease,” Edberg says. That’s because many chronic diseases, like heart disease and cancer, are rooted in inflammation in the body. Exercise helps combat that inflammation, lowering the risk of various diseases.
3. Exercise will improve your mood. You’ve no doubt heard people talking about the runner’s high — that euphoric feeling runners are said to experience after exercising. Believe it. “Your body release feel-good hormones like serotonin when you exercise, and you simply feel better,” Edberg says.
4. Exercise can reduce stress levels. Physical activity lowers levels of stress hormones, like cortisol , in your body. For a more simple explanation, “Exercise clears your mind from the day’s hustle,” says Meg Furstoss, CSCS , founder and managing partner of Precision Sports Performance in East Hanover, New Jersey.
5. Exercise can help stave off cognitive decline. Research has shown that physical activity, and aerobic exercise in particular, can help improve cognitive function, even in adults who are at high risk of developing
Alzheimer’s disease , according to data published in January 2018 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society . ( 1) This is why the Alzheimer’s Association lists physical activity as one of the 10 things you can do for better brain health. (2 )
6. Exercise may help you sleep better. People who exercise regularly tend to sleep better. Even just 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can significantly improve your sleep quality, especially if you do it regularly. Plus, you reduce your risk of sleep issues, like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, according to the National Sleep Foundation. ( 3) Bonus? “Exercise also prevents that daytime sleepiness, foggy feeling,” Furstoss explains.
7. Exercise gives you a natural shot of energy. Skip the caffeine next time you need an energy boost. Instead, put your gym shoes on and at the very least go for a walk. Numerous studies have shown that exercise can increase energy levels and reduce fatigue, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). (4 )
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But what should your exercise routine look like? Aerobic exercise, strength training, flexibility, and recovery are all important components of physical activity and boast unique health benefits. And all of those types of exercise should be part of your workout routine. Here’s what you need to know about the different types of exercise, how to find a workout routine that works for you, and how to stick with it.
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Aerobic Exercise Strengthens Your Heart and Lungs
Aerobic exercise is the foundation of every fitness program — and for good reason. “Being aerobically fit helps extend your life expectancy and improve your overall health,” Edberg says. It’s the type of exercise that conditions your heart, as well as improves lung function. ( 5)
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According to the most recent edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which were updated in 2018, adults should get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity a week. ( 6) Activity should be spread throughout the week, and additional health benefits are gained if you get more than 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, according to the guidelines.
RELATED: New Physical Activity Guidelines Say We Should Be Moving More All Day Long
Children and adolescents should do 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day, according to the HHS guidelines. Additionally, the guidelines note that unstructured or active playtime activities — like biking, jumping, or swimming — can enhance growth and development for preschool-aged children. (6)
Aerobic exercises include activities like brisk walking, running, cycling, swimming, aerobic fitness classes (like Zumba), tennis, snowshoeing, hiking, and gardening. (6)
Learn More About Aerobic Exercise
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The right amount of exercise you need depend on your health and fitness goals. Here’s what you should know.
Strength Training Keeps Muscles and Bones Strong — and Is Important Throughout Your Entire Life
While aerobic exercise extends your life, think of strength training as a way to improve the quality of your life. As you age, you lose muscle mass, which not only slows your metabolism but can also make you weaker, Edberg explains. Yet strength training — sometimes also called “resistance training” — helps quell muscle loss. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the definition of strength or resistance training is exercise that is “designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a muscle or a muscle group against external resistance.” ( 7 )
It also builds bone density and decreases risk of heart disease by lowering body fat and blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels . And strength training helps prevents loss of function as you age, including helping prevent osteoporosis and loss of mobility.
More on Strength Training
“Bone density is an important health metric that prevents fractures and gives you the physical capacity to perform functional things in life, especially as you age,” says Nicole Belkin, MD , an orthopedic surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City. “Resistance exercise during adolescence and early adulthood is the biggest contributing factor to bone density.”
The HHS recommends that both adults and children incorporate muscle-strengthening workouts into their weekly routines: Adults should do muscle-training activities, like resistance training and weight lifting using elastic bands or body weight for resistance, at least twice a week. (6)
Children and adolescents should aim to do strength training at least three times a week, as well as bone-strengthening activities, like jumping, running, or weight lifting, three times a week. (6)
Similarly, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing strength training two to three days a week, targeting each of the major muscle groups, allowing 48 to 72 hours between strength training workouts. ( 8)
Learn More About Why Strength Training Is Important and How to Do It Strength Training Found to Lower Heart Disease and Diabetes Risk, Whether or Not You Do Cardio
Editors’ Picks
Want a Stronger Core? Here Are the Ab Exercises You Should Be Doing
Your abdominal muscles are part of your core. And they’re the group of muscles that help you stand, sit up, and do basically all the day-to-day tasks you do that involve movement. They even stabilize your spine and the muscles of the back that help you stand, lift things, and rotate your upper body. ( 9)
Whether you want to start strengthening your abs and core muscles on a regular basis, or you want to ramp up the work you already do, here are some tips and a series of exercises to try.
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Personal trainer and Tough Mudder creative director Eric Botsford developed three different ab workouts you can personalize for your own fitness level.
Want to Protect Your Back? These Back Exercises Increase Strength and Mobility
Just like your abdominal and core muscles are important for supporting your back, your back muscles are likewise important for supporting your core and a lot of the daily movement you do.
And even though 80 percent of adults are likely to suffer through back pain at least once in their lives, according to estimates from the National Institutes of Health, regularly working out the muscles of the back is one of the top ways to lower your risk of experiencing that pain. (10 )
Try this series of back exercises to start strengthening these important muscles.
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Personal trainer and Tough Mudder creative director Eric Botsford developed three different workouts for your back muscles that you can personalize for your own fitness level.
Flexibility Builds Mobility and Helps Prevent Injury
Although to many fitness professionals, this component of exercise is known as “flexibility,” Edberg prefers the term “mobility.”
“Having the proper mobility allows you to do the first two types of exercise (aerobic and strength) appropriately,” Edberg says. Having flexibility or mobility also means that you don’t have to do aerobic exercise or strength training from a compromised position, which could increase your chance for injury, he explains.
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According to the HHS, activities that enhance flexibility improve the ability of a joint to move through the full range of motion. Stretching exercises increase flexibility, and allow people to be more mobile throughout the day. (6)
Yoga, tai chi, stretching, and foam rolling can all help build flexibility and mobility, and it’s wise to incorporate these activities into your program whenever you exercise, to increase performance and decrease injury risk, Edberg says.
Learn More About How the Different Types of Flexibility Exercises and How to Become More Flexible How to Stretch When You’re in Pain
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Rest and Recovery Are an Essential Part of Any Exercise Plan
Rest and recovery often get overlooked as part of any healthy exercise routine, but it’s just as important as all the other components. Our days are incredibly stressful to the body, and as a result of that stress, your body produces a hormone called cortisol, which can be harmful if it were to stay elevated. Exercise can also increase stress hormones in the body, Edberg explains.
“Exercise also creates a stress response in the body. That’s not a bad thing, but if your stress bucket is already full and it spills, your body won’t be able to handle the load,” Edberg says.
RELATED: Your Body on Stress — the Facts on the Body’s Stress Response
And that’s why making rest days, active recovery, and sleep part of your workout routine is a really important part of keeping your body healthy and functioning at its best.
The first step is to make sure you’re managing your daily stress outside of exercise. That means you need to log enough sleep and find time to relax every day through activities like meditation, yoga, and even massages.
RELATED: Special Report: The United States of Stress
And as you amp up your workout routine, it’s important to incorporate rest days and active recovery days when you’re not overstressing your muscles.
Learn More About How to Find the Right Amount of Rest and Recovery for Your Workout Routine
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How to Fuel Your Body Before and After Your Workout
Fueling your body with adequate and healthy foods also plays an important role in exercise. “Optimal nutrient intake prior to exercise will not only help you maximize your performance, but it also minimizes muscle damage and repairs cells after,” says MaryKate O’Riordan, RDN .
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Fortunately, eating for exercise doesn’t have to be difficult, and it starts by embracing the basic tenets of a healthy diet overall. “When you start with that foundation, you’ll be able to fuel your body properly for the work ahead,” says
Jackie Dikos, RDN , a sports dietitian in Westfield, Indiana, and author of Finish Line Fueling .
Dikos offers five tenets of healthy eating that everybody should be following, whether you’re exercising or not:
1. Choose quality carbohydrates that contain fiber, like sweet potatoes,
quinoa, brown rice , beans, oatmeal , and fruit.
2. Eat lean protein, such as salmon, beans, quinoa, tofu , tempeh, nuts, and seeds.
3. Eat healthy fat, like fatty fish, pumpkin seed, avocado , walnuts, and extra virgin olive oil .
4. Add antioxidants to every meal, which means making sure your meals have color.
5. Drink enough fluid to maintain hydration.
Once you have that foundation in place, you can then tweak your eating habits to work with your exercise program, namely with what you eat before and after a workout. Follow these guidelines from Dikos and O’Riordan:
“It’s important to eat before any form of endurance exercise, as performing in the fasted state may compromise fuel store,” O’Riordan says — meaning you won’t be able to work out as hard as you otherwise could. “During an overnight fast, liver glycogen stores, which regulate the energy needs of muscles, are reduced by about 80 percent.” (Muscle glycogen availability contributes to fatigue during exercise, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients .) ( 11 )
O’Riordan recommends hydrating and consuming a meal that includes a mix of carbohydrates and protein (lighter on the latter, heavier on the former) about two to three hours before exercise to properly fuel the average person. Try an apple and peanut butter or Greek yogurt with berries, she says.
And if you’re snacking 30 minutes before your workout or less, make sure that snack isn’t more than a couple hundred calories.
What if you’re exercising right when you get up in the morning? Whether you eat and what you eat will depend on numerous variables, including what time you last ate and how intense your workout will be. If you haven’t eaten since 6 p.m. the night before or if you’re doing an intense workout, you may need a snack, Dikos says. If you had a snack later in the previous evening or a heavier dinner and your a.m. workout is a lighter one, you probably don’t need to eat beforehand. But remember, listening to your body’s hunger cues is important, Dikos adds.
The type of workout you just did and when you’re planning your next workout will largely determine whether you should eat right after working out. A low- to moderate-intensity workout, like a 45-minute brisk walk, doesn’t require immediate refueling (particularly if your next meal is not far away), Dikos says. But if you’ve just done a high-intensity workout or you know you’re doing another workout either later that day or a tough workout the next day, your body will need fuel. Dikos recommends eating one-half your body weight in carbohydrates plus 10 to 20 grams of protein.

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