Fitness: what it is, health benefits and how to get started

Improved physical fitness dramatically reduces the risk of chronic diseases that develop over time, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer. “The one thing that will help prevent almost any kind of illness is fitness,” says Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company in New York.

In 2007, ACSM partnered with the American Medical Association to launch the Exercise is Medicine initiative with the goal of making physical activity assessment part of routine medical care and providing exercise resources to people of all ability levels. “The scientifically proven benefits of physical activity remain undisputed, and they can be as powerful as any pharmaceutical agent in preventing and treating a range of chronic diseases and medical conditions,” notes the initiative’s website.

Here’s a breakdown of those benefits:

Exercise improves your mood

Regular exercise has been shown to be a buffer against depression and anxiety, according to a study. What’s more, other studies show that exercise can help manage symptoms of depression and help treat it, notes a science article. Exercise can help reduce inflammation, something that has been shown to increase in people with depression; it’s also possible that physical activity promotes beneficial changes in the brain, the researchers say.

Learn more about the ways being fit boosts energy and mood

Exercise is good for sleep

Regular exercise can help you get a more restful night’s sleep. Of the 34 studies included in the systematic review, 29 found that exercise improved sleep quality and was associated with longer sleep bouts. It can help you adjust your body clock (so you’re alert and sleepy at the right times), create chemical changes in the brain that promote sleep, and, past research shows, can ease anxiety before sleep that otherwise it can keep you awake.

It’s worth noting, however, that high-intensity exercise done too close to bedtime (within an hour or two) can make it difficult for some people to fall asleep and should be done earlier in the day.

Learn more about the intimate connection between fitness and sleep

Exercise promotes long-term health

Exercise has been shown to improve brain and bone health, preserve muscle mass (so you don’t get frail as you age), improve your sex life, improve gastrointestinal function, and reduce the risk of many diseases, including cancer and stroke. A study of more than 116,000 adults also found that getting the recommended 150 to 300 minutes of physical activity per week reduced the risk of dying from any cause by 19 percent.

Learn more about the amazing ways that staying fit improves your health

Fitness helps you cope with chronic diseases

Exercise helps the body function, and that includes managing other chronic health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you have osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, or have had a stroke or cancer, physical activity can help. Exercise can help reduce pain, improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control, promote mobility, improve heart health, reduce the risk of other chronic diseases, and play a role in good mental health.

If you have a chronic illness and want to stay active or become more active, routine walking is usually a safe place to start. “Most people don’t need permission from their doctor to start walking unless your doctor has specifically told you they don’t want you to exercise,” Sallis says.

He says he wishes more people would look at physical activity as a baseline and that: “You have to get permission from your doctor no to exercise,” he says.

But if you become excessively short of breath, feel chest pain, or have any other worrisome symptoms, call your doctor.

Learn more about why being fit helps manage chronic disease

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