group exercise class with women

Yes, you read that correctly, exercise is medicine and it doesn’t taste bad! In fact, it can make you feel better immediately. A lot of our thinking around exercise has to do with losing weight. But there is much more to exercise than just burning calories. Exercise increases endorphins, those feel-good chemicals our brains crave. Forget about muffin tops and love handles for a minute, forget about fat; lack of exercise is the fourth leading cause of death according to the World Health Organization.

Exercise Fights Illness

Here are the ways physical exercise impacts various conditions:


  • Lowers the incidence of cardiovascular disease and reduces mortality (including heart disease and stroke)
  • Lowers the incidence of hypertension
  • Lowers the incidence of type 2 diabetes


  • Lowers the incidence of bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, stomach and lung cancers

Brain Health

  • Reduces the risk of dementia
  • Improves cognitive function
  • Improves cognitive function following bouts of aerobic activity
  • Improves quality of life
  • Improves sleep
  • Reduces feelings of anxiety and depression in healthy people and in people with existing diagnosis of anxiety and depression
  • Reduces the likelihood of depression

For older adults

  • Reduces the chance of falling
  • Reduces the number of fall-related injuries

Improves almost all aspects of physical function in older adults whether they are frail or not. This includes relieving constipation and making it easier to breathe. 

Individuals with Pre-Existing Medical Conditions

  • Osteoarthritis – Decreases pain and improves both function and quality of life
  • Hypertension – Reduces the risk of progression of cardiovascular disease 
  • Type 2 diabetes – Reduces the risk of progression or worsening of diabetes and the indicators: hemoglobin A1c, blood pressure, blood lipids, and body mass index and reduces the cardiovascular mortality associated with diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis – Improves balance, walking, and overall physical fitness

Exercise and Weight Loss

Unfortunately, studies show that exercise alone is not much help in weight reduction. Not only does it not burn enough calories, vigorous exercise can make you hungry. Glenn Gaesser, who is a professor of exercise physiology at Arizona State University in Phoenix, has been studying body composition, metabolism, and obesity. In one of his studies, a group of overweight sedentary women began an exercise routine consisting of 30-minute walks 3 times a week. After 3 months a few of the women had lost some body fat, but many had gained weight!

In a new recent study, Professor Gaesser focused on fitness and metabolic health, analyzing data from years of previous studies. They wanted to find out from a pool of tens of thousands of participants what these studies of weight loss and exercise said about overall health and longevity. They wanted to know if a heavy person gets more wellness value from losing weight or from getting fit.

Heavy But Healthier

Well, well, guess what?  No contest.  “Compared head-to-head, the magnitude of benefit was far greater from improving fitness than from losing weight,” Dr. Gaesser told the New York Times

Exercise and improved fitness can lower the risk of premature death by as much as 30%. A fit heavy person can be healthier that a sedentary one of normal weight. One of the keys here is the loss of “visceral fat,” the fat that collects around organs. You may have heard of “fatty liver” which puts you at risk for serious liver disease. Exercise seems to reduce this internal fat even though overall body weight remains.  

Why Not an Exercise Prescription?

The US 2016 National Health Interview Survey reports that 48 percent of adults are not meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic activity, and 78 percent of adults are not meeting the guidelines for both aerobic and strength training. U.S. adolescents and adults spend almost eight hours a day sitting. Approximately 36 percent of adults engage in no leisure-time physical activity at all. 

Are healthcare providers and physicians prescribing exercise? Not so much. A recent review of medical school curriculums found that over 50% of medical students did not receive specific education related to physical activity, and do not attend lectures specifically on diet and exercise. 

Many healthcare professionals believe our system values diagnosis, treatment, surgery, and medications over preventative measures. We have improved greatly on offering screenings for early detection of disease, but that’s not the same as prevention through fitness. But there is movement in the healthcare industry towards wellness and a more holistic approach. HMO Kaiser Permanente and all the major insurers now offer free and reduced rate exercise classes and gym memberships. Kaiser routinely asks patients about their weekly amount of physical activity.  

In the United Kingdom, the government’s NHS recently launched a campaign and online resources to help providers talk to their patients about the benefits of exercise in fighting disease and protecting against dementia. 


It is easy in modern life to live in our heads (and our screens) and lose touch with our bodies. Adding an exercise routine to our lives has benefits beyond preventing illness, it can improve our emotional life and social interactions. Exercising in a group, playing a competitive game, or walking with a friend is a healthy social connection and can add structure to our days. We can set goals for ourselves and feel productive and empowered when we achieve them, and it doesn’t matter if it’s walking around the block, a 10-mile bike ride, or a marathon. 

Remember to Stretch

No matter what your age, if you’re exercising, do take a few minutes before and after to stretch out or do a few yoga moves to stay flexible and let your muscles recover.

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