Many people hit the gym or pound the pavement to improve cardiovascular health, build muscle, and of course, get a rockin’ bod, but working out has above-the-neck benefits, too. For the past decade or so, scientists have pondered how exercising can boost brain function. Regardless of age or fitness level (yup, this includes everyone from mall-walkers to marathoners), studies show that making time for exercise provides some serious mental benefits. Get inspired to exercise by reading up on these unexpected ways that working out can benefit mental health, relationships, and lead to a healthier and happier life overall.
A new study from her lab shows that a 20-minute moderate workout has measurable effects on the immune system: Participants were asked to walk or jog on a treadmill, depending on their fitness level. They measured levels of TNF, an inflammatory marker, before and after the exercise, and found that there was a 5% reduction in the number of immune cells that produced the marker.
Being there for our loved ones and enjoying as many special moments together as we can — that’s what life really is all about. Keeping your body happy and healthy to help you live a longer, fuller life is one of exercise’s biggest benefits. Therefore, it’s great news that research published in 2012, which studied more than 650,000 people, found that 150 minutes of moderate exercise (or about half hour five days a week) increases your life span by 3.4 years. (14)
Commit to a 7-day meal plan. Create a 7-day meal plan that covers 3 main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner), scheduled at the same time of day, and 2 small snacks (between breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner), scheduled at the same time of day. A set meal plan will ensure you eat at a consistent time every day and do not skip or miss a meal. Consuming about 1,400 calories a day, combined with exercise, can help you to achieve healthy weight loss.
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.
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.
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Want to see those arms getting leaner in a hurry? Try adding some dips to your routine. While there are resistance machines that can help you tackle this exercise, it’s also easily accomplished using parallel bars or even a sturdy chair at home. With your arms shoulder-width apart by your waist, grip whatever surface you’re dipping on. Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle, bringing your whole body down, and extend to straighten your arms again. Not only does this help build strong triceps, it can also help you define your pectoral muscles, making your whole upper body look and feel stronger.
One of the easiest ways to tone those arms fast is by incorporating some bicep curls into your routine. Simply raising and lowering a weight in a 180-degree range of motion, starting with your arm extended along your side, and bringing it up toward your shoulder, can yield serious definition in a hurry. Fortunately, this exercise doesn’t require a fancy gym membership or even special equipment; while it’s not hard to find a set of dumbbells for under $10, you can also use household products, like gallon jugs of water or soup cans to get the same result.
Begin in a forearm plank position. Press the right hand into the floor and then the left hand, rising to a high-plank position. Rotate your body to the right and extend the left arm toward the sky for a side-plank variation, allowing the left leg to scissor over the top of the right, with the inner edge of the left foot and the outer edge of the right foot touching the floor. Return to plank position. Release the right forearm back down to the floor and then the left forearm to return to the starting position. Repeat the sequence, this time starting with the left hand and coming to a left side-plank position. Continue the movement pattern without pausing, alternating sides. Complete a total of 10 to 12 reps (five to six reps per side).
Mediterranean diet: Traditional cuisine of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, shown to reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and dementia. On the menu: Plenty of fruits, vegetables and beans, along with olive oil, nuts, whole grains, seafood; moderate amounts of low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese and poultry; small amounts of red meat and sweets; and wine, in moderation, with meals.
Harrison is also a hardcore burpee devotee. "It's a full-body exercise that will get your heart rate up, and it can be progressed and regressed in a variety of ways," she explains. (Psst—here are nine ways to do a burpee, no matter what your level is.) But her go-to burpee has a twist: "I also really love mountain climbers for some of the same reasons, so why not combine them?" The combo of the two will skyrocket your heart rate for a major cardio challenge.
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.
If you want to lose weight and keep it off, you know that exercise should be an essential part of your routine. But the benefits of physical activity go far beyond just physical fitness. Increasingly, more and more research is showing that working out regularly can boost other aspects of your health as well, including cognitive function and emotional well-being.