You probably have a vague sense that exercise is good for you—and you’ve probably heard that it’s “healthy for the heart.” But if you’re like most people, that’s not enough motivation to get you to break a sweat with any regularity. As I report in the TIME cover story, “The Exercise Cure,” only 20% of Americans get the recommended 150 minutes of strength and cardiovascular physical activity per week, more than half of all baby boomers report doing no exercise whatsoever, and 80.2 million Americans over age 6 are entirely inactive.
“Body fat is structurally important,” explains Stefanie Mendez, R.D., co-founder of Matriarch, a women's fitness and nutrition service. “It cushions our organs and insulates our body for temperature control and also is our body’s source of energy reserves. Beyond that, fat is needed for the production of hormones and reproduction functions.” And that fat can show up in your thighs, your belly, and, yes, your upper arms. Where it goes is partly due to genetics; if your mom has arm fat, science says you have a 62 percent chance of inheriting that trait.
“Push-ups are a great exercise that can be done regressively or progressively. Adding things like shoulder taps, mountain climbers, or even negatives are great ways to add more effectiveness to push-ups done without weight,” explained Septh. Similarly, Barajas mentioned a change simple as switching up your hand placements (wide, narrow, etc.) will work different parts of the muscles.
Exercise helps people to lose and maintain weight. An exercise session burns calories and elevates metabolic rate both during exercise and then for hours after exercise is completed. It helps to preserve and build lean muscle mass. It works to suppress appetite. All of these benefits work together to make exercise vital for maintaining weight loss.
Think you can’t get a good workout while you’re sitting? Think again. In fact, the seated lat pulldown is one of the best exercises for toning those arms in a hurry. Using a pulldown machine, grip the bar and pull to chest level, and then raise again. This exercise makes it easy to build your biceps quickly and helps strengthen and tone your shoulders, which can make your arms look leaner, as well.
Ah, the push-up. While lunges are a unilateral exercise, push-ups are a compound exercise. Compound exercises use several muscle groups at once. This classic move engages your core, biceps, triceps, deltoids, and lower body—and that’s just to keep you stabilized. Using this many muscle groups at once causes your heart to work harder to get oxygen-rich blood to your muscles. So, in short, push-ups can also be a form of cardiovascular exercise that increases heart health.
Although the cardiovascular effects of exercise are partly related to inflammation, they still deserve their own category. Exercise is one of the best-illustrated things we can do for our hearts, and this includes markers like blood pressure and cholesterol, in addition the physical structure of the heart itself, and blood vessel function. Studies have suggested that 30 minutes per day is good enough to keep the heart in shape, while others have suggested we do more than this to get a real effect. Some have found that light activity is even enough to help the heart, but not all research confirms this, so it’s a little hard to tell how low levels of activity affect heart health over the long term. Additionally, too much exercise has also been shown to be stressful to the heart. So all this is to say that there’s probably a sweet spot somewhere in the middle for optimal cardiovascular health.
Bend your knees and push your butt back toward your heels, and then explode from that position back to a high plank and immediately bend your elbows and bring your chest toward the ground to do a push-up. As you bend your elbows and lower toward the ground, your elbows should be at about a 45-degree angle to your body (though you can make adjustments based on what feels best for your shoulders).
As people enter their forties and fifties, muscle mass starts to decline because of aging and, in some cases, decreased activity levels. Muscular atrophy can also occur because of health conditions, such as joint pain. As we age, it’s important to increase or maintain muscle mass through strength training, not only because it helps burn calories, but also because muscle mass is essential for strength and balance.
Though some people actually love physical activity and look forward to it, for many of us, exercising is a mighty drag. Exercise has also had an added PR problem in recent years: A growing body of evidence has shown that it’s not all that good for weight loss, which was probably many people’s reason for doing it in the first place. It may help with weight a little, especially for maintenance, but by and large, if you want to drop pounds, the most effective way is to eat less, not necessarily to exercise more. That said, research in recent years has also illustrated quite persuasively what exercise is good for—and it is actually good for a number of things, including some very profound things, like reducing dementia risk. Here’s what science tells us we should probably keep exercising for, even though we may not love every minute of it.
Exercise provides socialization opportunities. Exercising outside the home, whether in the great outdoors, at a gym or recreation center, in an exercise class, sport group, walking or running club, etc., all lead to encounters with other people who also enjoy working out. New acquaintances and friendships develop readily in such contexts. Over time, having the pleasure of one's exercise group's company becomes another reason to exercise.
You're protecting yourself against colds, flu, you name it. Exercise elevates your level of immunoglobulins, which are proteins that help bolster your immune system and ward off infection. "Every sweat session you do can help strengthen your immune function for about 24 hours," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise.