Scientific Benefits of Exercise [Research Review]

Posted on 03 September, 2021 by Nicholas Rizzo

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In 2021, we began a project dedicating a significant amount of time towards researching the scientific benefits of exercise for your health. Reading, reviewing, analyzing, and reporting the findings of hundreds of studies showing how everything from regular physical activity to working out benefits you. 

Health benefits of exercise

Exercise is the act of increasing your physical activity and exerting more effort than you normally would. It increases your heart rate and respiratory rate, which helps your internal organs function well.

Based on various observational and interventional studies, it was discovered that 4 months to 3 years of regular exercise can:

  • Reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 58%
  • Lower the prevalence of metabolic syndrome by 52.6%
  • Reduce blood glucose by 13% in 48 to 72 hours after exercise, but not during or immediately after a workout
  • HbA1c is reduced by 0.66 to 9.5% 
  • Reduce systolic blood pressure by 3.9mmHg to 4.3mmHg
  • Lower diastolic blood pressure by 1.7mmHG to 3.9mmHg 
  • Lower the risk for incident hypertension by 26 to 62%
  • Reduce the progression of prehypertension to hypertension by 30 to 40%
  • Lower the risk of developing hypertension by 16 to 34% in those who have parental hypertension history
  • Cardiorespiratory fitness increased by 13.5 to 22%

Exercise is good for anyone who wants to improve their health because it:

  • Makes your heart stronger, so it is able to pump more blood throughout the body
  • When your heart is strong, the arteries don’t work as hard to pump blood, which leads to lower blood pressure
  • Reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases
  • Lowers the chance of developing type 2 diabetes because your body utilizes excess blood glucose instead of storing it

Benefits of exercise for the physique

According to studies, adults who exercised at least 4 times a week when they were younger, compared to those who led a sedentary lifestyle, have: 

Bone mass density 

  • 9% higher in their arms
  • 14.5% higher in their thoracic spine
  • 23.9% higher in their lumbar spine
  • 22.7% higher in their legs Legs 22.7%

Bone mineral content

  • 14.4 to 27.8% higher in their arms
  • 24.1% higher in their trunk
  • 34.5 to 36.7% higher in their legs

A year of exercise, done at least 5 times a week can lead to:

  • Reduction of weight by 4.7 to 13.6% of the original weight
  • Lower body fat by 7.6 to 10.7%
  • Decrease in fat mass by 9.6 to 14.7%

Regular exercise is good for people who want a better physique because:

  • The regular contraction and stretching of muscles allows them to tear and heal and become stronger
  • The pulling of muscles during exercise stresses the bones which lead to the release of bone-forming cells that results in increased density
  • More muscles in the body result in increased calorie burn, which helps people lose body fat and weight
  • Stronger muscles of the core and back prevent slouching and improve posture 

Mental health benefits of exercise

Aside from keeping your body running smoothly, regular exercise has also been proven to help improve mental health.

At least 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise done one or twice a week can: 

  • Reduce tension by 48 to 65%
  • Diffuse anger by 75 to 100%
  • Lower feelings of depression by 68 to 88%
  • Decrease confusion by 31% to 35%
  • Reduce fatigue by 15% 36%
  • Lower total mood disturbance by 16% to 17%
  • Increase vigor by 21.3% 

Regular exercise is good for your brain and mental health because:

  • When you learn new things, your brain makes new connections to turn them into memories, which in turn sharpens your brain function
  • You sleep better as stress hormones are reduced
  • When you improve your physical appearance, it also helps with your self-esteem
  • It promotes the release of endorphins, or happy hormones, which aids in lowering depressive mood
  • Getting your heart pumping and blood circulating properly reduces the feeling of exhaustion which also decreases stress and irritability

Benefits of different types of exercises

Cardio

Cardio benefits your heart health significantly. When analyzing how different forms of aerobic exercise improved heart health, the studies showed significant improvements in risk of heart diseases, strokes, and blood pressure.

In fact, a year of regular high intensity cardio showed improved lipid panels with:

  • 11.2-17.3% reductions in triglycerides
  • 3.6-4.5% reduction in LDL cholesterol
  • 5.8-8.6% increases in HDL cholesterol

Strength training

Building strength and muscle through weight training is not only beneficial, it is suggested you do it at least twice a week by goverment physical activity guidelines. One population that weight training is specifically beneficial for are older adults and seniors. In our meta-analysis on the benefits of strength training for seniors and older adults, we found that:

  • Strength training is the best way to prevent age-related muscle loss and sarcopenia that naturally occurs with age
  • Prevents age-related declines in neuromuscular functioning and significant improvements in balance, movement control, mobility, and flexibility - all of which significantly reduces fall-risk factors
  • Resistance training helped older adults prevent declines in overall brain health, cognitive function, memory, and learning capabilities
  • Lifting weights for seniors led to significant reductions in depression, stress, anxiety, and improved their self-esteem, self-perception, body satisfaction, and overall life satisfaction

Other benefits of strength training, when done 2 to 3 times a week, include increased:

  • Muscle strength by 19-59%
  • Bone mass density in the femoral neck by 1.64%
  • BMD in the spine by 5.34%

Benefits of specific types of exercises

Walking

Walking is the easiest, cheapest, and most accessible form of exercise available. Despite this and being a low-intensity aerobic activity, the benefits of walking are immense. In fact, just by starting a daily walking routine, research has shown:

  • Not taking daily walks puts you at a 1.2x greater risk of dying in comparison to those that do
  • Those that walk 8,000 steps a day have a 51% lower all-cause mortality compared to those taking just 4,000 steps or lower
  • Deaths from all causes reduce by 65% by walking 12,000 steps a day
  • 10,000 steps a day lowers the risk of developing diabetes by 5.5%
  • People who walk 3+ miles per day are 53% less likely to have dementia - just walking 10 blocks is enough to decrease dementia risk by 25%

Biking

Riding a bike is a form of cardio that is also well known to significantly improve lower body strength, muscle, and endurance, all while helping you lose weight.

The benefits of biking are unique when considering it as a replacement for transportation to work. The research has shown taking your bike to work daily can result in:

  • 3.5-3.8% lower incidence of myocardial infarction
  • 11-18% lower risk of coronary heart disease
  • 1.7% less likley to suffer from heart attacks
  • Being 20% less likely to suffer from depression than other co-workers
  • Average loss of 15 lbs over two years of commuting to work via bike

High intensity interval training

HIIT is most well known for it's benefits towards fat loss while also significantly improving your physical fitness, muscle, strength, and conditioning. What's unique about HIIT is that it can be applied to any form of exercise, being able to be done with running, cycling, climbing, and strength workouts. 

The research showed some of the top benefits of HIIT were:

  • 9.8 weeks of HIIT led to an average 1.64% loss in body fat
  • HIIT was shown to be 36.34% more effective at burning body fat over ~10 weeks than moderate intensity continuous training (MICT)
  • Increases in human growth hormone by 450% post-exercise
  • Improvements in upper body strength by as much as 67.8% in 8 weeks

Rowing

Rowing is a unique form of cardio that also doubles as an effective full-body strength training exercise. In fact, it has been shown to engage about 65-75% of the lower body and 25-35% of the upper body. Therefore, there are some unique benefits of rowing in comparison to other forms of cardio - specifically research shows it improves:

  • Back muscle strength by 37.8% in 8 weeks
  • Grip strength up to 36.6% in 6 weeks
  • Vertical jump height by 19.4% in 6 weeks

Jumping Rope

This school-yard activity is also a great form of physical activity that has significant lower body benefits. The high-intensity, reptitive jumping movement of this exercise lends itself to some results that other forms of exercise don't. Specifically, the research shows some of the unique benefits of jumping rope being:

  • Run 3.3% faster by jumping rope 3 days a week for 10 weeks
  • Agility increases by 8.9% in 15 weeks
  • Lower body fat by 8.9% and BMI by 4.3-5.7% in just 12 weeks
  • Jump 49% higher after 15 weeks 
  • Bone density increases 11-18% after 24 weeks
  • Just 10 minutes a day of skipping rope produces the same cardiovascular benefits of jogging for 30 minutes.

Hiking

Hiking gets your whole body moving, so you get a full exercise while basking in nature. But aside from keeping you physically fit, hiking also challenges your brain as you navigate different terrains or learn new skills like reading a map or a compass. 

Some of the health benefits of hiking at least once a week include:

  • Improve creativity and problem-solving skills by 50%
  • Short term memory improvement by 20% after an hour in nature
  • Lower cortisol levels by 21%
  • Reduce feelings of depression and dejection by 31.1%

Sprinting

Sprinting is the act of running, but at a faster pace and shorter distance. Though the obvious benefit of sprinting is to increase one’s speed, it does more than that.

Some benefits of sprinting for at least 2 weeks include increased:

  • Endurance by 42%
  • Speed by 6%
  • Mean power by 2.8%
  • VO2max by 11.5 to 23.4%

Pushups

Pushups is a type of strength training activity that results in upper body muscle gains. Though it may appear like pushups only work your muscles, it has also been proven to improve overall health.

Based on a 10-year study, people who were able to do 40 pushups a day reaped the following health benefits of pushups:

  • 96% reduction in risk of developing cardiovascular disease
  • 3.9% lower total cholesterol
  • 4.9% increase in good cholesterol
  • 23% reduction in all-cause mortality
  • 31% reduction in cancer mortality

Squats

Whether you want to tone your leg and thigh muscles, or get killer butt muscles, squats will help you achieve that and more. Some benefits of squatting for 2 to 8 weeks can result in:

  • Increased muscle mass thickness by 3.2%
  • Improved knee extensor strength by 16%
  • Increased squat jump height by 45.9%

Deadlift

Deadlift, as part of your weightlifting routine, provides your body with many benefits. Aside from increasing muscle build, it also helps people who want to develop both upper and lower body strength.

For beginners who did 5 sets of 5 reps of deadlift, 2x a week for 10 weeks, some of the benefits of deadlifts they reaped includes increased:

  • Vertical jump height by 4 to 7.4%
  • Knee extensor and flexor torque development by 25 and 40.2%, respectively
  • Sprinting speed by 2 to 3%
  • Running economy by 2 to 5%

Bench press

Another upper body exercise worth looking into is bench pressing. The act of lifting a heavy load away from your body helps the bones and muscles of the upper body get stronger.

Two weeks of bench presses at least 1 to 3 days a week, resulted in some health benefits such as increased: 

  • Upper body strength by 6 to 27%
  • Upper body 1-RMs by 53 to 62%
  • Arm muscle thickness by 8%
  • Chest muscle thickness by 16%

Pull-ups

Pull-ups are a type of compound workout that works different muscle groups at once, making it ideal for people who do not have enough time to exercise.

Some of the benefits of pull-ups, when done twice a week for at least 6 weeks, include increased:

  • Pull-up performance by 65%
  • Back muscle activation by 130%
  • Upper arm muscle activation by 96%
  • Chest muscle activation by 44 to 57% 

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Use of content

  • If the Benefits of Cardio piqued your interest and you want to know more, you can reach out to Nick Rizzo at nick@runrepeat.com. He’d be happy to answer any queries. He’s also available for interviews.
  • Data from this analysis is free to use for any online publication. We only request that you link back to this original source.
Author
Nicholas Rizzo
Nicholas Rizzo

Nick combines 10+ years of experience in the health and fitness industry and a background in the sciences in his role as the Fitness Research Director. During his competitive powerlifting years his PRs have him sitting in the top 2% of bench presses (395 lbs), top 3% of squats (485 lbs) and top 6% of deadlifts (515 lbs) for his weight and age. His work has been featured on Bodybuilding.com, LiveStrong, Healthline, WebMD, WashingtonPost, and many more. Along the way, collaborating with industry leaders like Michael Yessis, Mark Rippetoe, Carlo Buzzichelli, Dave Tate, Ray Williams, and Joel Seedman.