We all know that exercise does a body good: Just for starters, it strengthens the heart, lowers blood pressure, improves muscle tone and strength, builds strong bones and reduces body fat. Studies show that regular physical activity can dramatically lower your risk for diseases like osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer, too. That’s reason enough to hit the gym, of course. But you may be even more inclined to get moving when you learn about the less-obvious (though still impressive) benefits that breaking a sweat brings. If you’re looking for more reasons to feel good about your workouts, or to motivate yourself to get to the gym more often, here are 10 bonuses to exercise that might surprise you.
It improves your sex life.
Studies have found that the simple act of getting regular exercise, regardless of weight loss, helps people feel better about their bodies, which, in turn, makes us more likely to want to get close to someone else. But activity also conditions you for the physical aspects of sex, strengthening the cardiovascular system and improving circulation, both of which are important for sexual performance. "Body weight exercises are great for improving sexual performance," says Jeff Dolgan, MS, CSCS, HFI, a clinical exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Miami. "Full-body planks, pelvic presses or bridges, push-ups, static squats (squat and hold) and improving lower-body flexibility will help both men and women feel strong and capable when snuggling up to their favorite partner." University of California, San Diego researchers asked healthy but sedentary mid-life men to do one-hour exercise sessions three to four times a week. The former couch potatoes reported more reliable sexual functioning, more frequent sexual activity and orgasms and greater satisfaction with their love life.
It strengthens your immune system.
It's not only your muscles that get stronger with regular exercise—so does your immune system. Workouts speed the rate at which infection-fighting white blood cells travel through your body, helping you stave off bacteria and viruses more efficiently so you can thwart colds and other illnesses. And because exercise reduces stress and improves sleep, your immune system also benefits from the resulting decrease in hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can weaken immunity. (Getting enough sleep helps your body fight microscopic invaders, too.) The trick is to not overdo your training, though: If the intensity of your workouts is too high it will cause your white blood cell count to drop—and immunity goes down.
It keeps your brain fit.
Though it may seem hard to believe, studies show that adults who exercise simply have more brain cells than those who don’t; a Canadian study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that strength training as little as once a week resulted in better concentration skills. Exercise also increases brain chemicals called growth factors that help make new brain cells and establish new connections between them, improving learning, and may even reduce your risk of dementia by as much as 40 percent. To challenge yourself mentally as well as physically, try complicated activities that require coordination, like tennis or dance (though any kind of workout can help).
It lifts depression.
If you're dealing with depression you may not feel like working out, but doing so could help you beat the blues; in fact, exercise can work as well as medication in reducing the symptoms of mild to moderate depression. During vigorous exercise, the body releases chemicals called endorphins that interact with receptors in the brain known to reduce the perception of pain. In some people, this surge can even trigger a euphoric feeling—a sort of natural high. One way to ensure your cardio is challenging enough to bring about this surge is to add interval training. Do any kind of aerobic exercise (run, bike, swim) as fast as you can for, say, 30 to 40 seconds, then reduce your speed to a gentler pace for five minutes before sprinting again. Repeat four times for a total of five sprints. Once endorphins are released into the bloodstream, they last a while, so don't be surprised if you feel more energized for the rest of the day.
It reduces the effects of stress.
Exercise also boosts the release of soothing chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which moderate the brain’s response to stress. That’s why jumping on a treadmill or cross trainer for 30 minutes can help you blow off steam and feel less anxious and more relaxed. Exercise may also work to reverse the physical toll stress can take on the body. In one study from the University of California, San Francisco, women who were stressed but active—they exercised for an average of 45 minutes over a three-day period—had cells that showed fewer signs of aging compared to women who were stressed and sedentary.
It helps you sleep.
Exercise prompts you to fall asleep more quickly, helping you clock the recommended seven to nine hours of snooze time a night, and plunges you into a deep sleep for longer—all of which you need to feel refreshed the next day. Aerobic exercise—whether running, walking, swimming or bicycling—encourages the secretion of more growth hormones at night, which helps repair and rejuvenate the body. And since cardio workouts also reduce stress, they allow you to calm down enough to welcome shut-eye. In one study led by researchers at Northwestern University, sedentary women who started doing aerobic exercise not only reported better sleep, but improved mood, more vitality and less daytime sleepiness. (Be careful about when you work out, though; training right before bedtime will likely hurt your sleep more than it will help it.)
It boosts your confidence.
Studies suggest that simply seeing improvements in fitness—like being able to swim more laps or run a faster mile—can improve self-esteem and body image. And that confidence can have an impact on other areas of your life: Not only do people who exercise feel better about themselves, they also feel more able to accomplish tough tasks, whether it’s landing a new job or juggling a crazy schedule. If it's hard for you to block out time for longer workouts, try to exercise in shorter bursts throughout the day—take a five- or 10-minute power walk, for instance, climb a couple of sets of stairs or do 50 jumping jacks; these stolen moments for exercise can add up quickly.
It relieves constipation.
If occasional "plumbing problems" strike, exercise is one of the best tools you can use to stay regular and keep digestion on track. Whether you walk, run, dance, bike or swim, simply moving your body helps decrease the time it takes food to travel through the large intestine, as does building abdominal strength. Both help limit the amount of water absorbed from the stool into the body, keeping stools at the proper, easy-to-pass consistency. In addition, aerobic exercise accelerates breathing and heart rate, which helps stimulate the natural contraction of the intestinal muscles responsible for moving stools out quickly. Stretching may help alleviate constipation, too; yoga poses that involve twists, forward folds and inversions are particularly useful for keeping things flowing. "If you're having a difficult time going to the bathroom, sit on the toilet facing backward with your arms resting on top of the water reservoir; this elongates the spine," suggests Canyon Ranch exercise physiologist Jeff Dolgan. "This position will make it easier for the intestine to do its work."
It improves your complexion.
Have you ever noticed how your skin glows after a workout? That’s the result of increased blood flow nourishing skin cells. Blood not only carries oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout the body, including the skin, it also carries away cellular waste and debris. And because exercise increases blood flow, a workout offers your skin a major cleaning from the inside, leaving it radiant and healthy. Since exercise also reduces stress it can minimize flare-ups of stress-related skin conditions like eczema.
It inspires creativity.
Moving your body really does seem to make it easier to spark new thinking—and it doesn't have to take long. One Stanford University study found that walking for just eight minutes on a treadmill or outside markedly improved people’s ability to generate creative ideas. The link between walking and creative thinking wasn’t entirely clear, but it may have to do with improving mood—namely that walking somehow frees the mind from constraining or habitual thought patterns.