They Say ‘Exercise is the Best Medicine.’ A Trainer Explains Why it’s True.

Jessica Thiefels, The Upside Blog by

by | Updated: September 24th, 2023 | Read time: 5 minutes

It’s widely known that regular movement and exercise benefits your mental and physical wellness. The data shows us, though, that it can be so much more than that. According to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, more than 50 percent of health issues are due to harmful lifestyle patterns, like sedentary behavior.

Happy Couple Doing Yoga with Dog on Living Room Floor to Represent Exercise is Medicine Concept

This means exercise can treat, and more importantly, help prevent, many serious chronic illnesses that contribute to public health crises all across the globe. Here’s what to know about the medicinal effects of regular exercise, the science behind why it’s effective and how to harness those benefits for your own well-being and quality of life.

Exercise is medicine for your physical wellness

Incorporating any kind of movement (aerobic or resistance training) into a daily routine has been shown to improve cellular, molecular, tissue and organ function. This, in turn, can protect you from a variety of negative health outcomes, for example:

  • Increase lung capacity and enhance cardiorespiratory health
  • Lower oxidative stress and inflammation to bolster immune resilience
  • Boost metabolism and alleviate the risk of metabolic syndrome
  • Promote musculoskeletal strength, tissue repair and bone density
  • Improve hormonal balance within the endocrine system
  • Regulate circadian rhythms to reduce sleep disturbances
  • Stimulate blood circulation to the heart, brain and other organs
  • Help maintain a diverse gut microbiome and healthy intestinal tract

These biomarkers can also lower your risk of cancer, obesity, stroke, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular or pulmonary disease, multiple sclerosis, gastrointestinal issues, sarcopenia and Parksinson’s. Not to mention, exercise boosts flexibility, balance, and range-of-motion, which could prevent musculoskeletal injuries as well. When it comes to prevention, this is some of the best “medicine” you can take.

Exercise is medicine for your mental wellness

Physical activities can also be used as therapeutic interventions to sustain mental health. The same research linked above shows that exercise increases neural progenitor cells, which enhance cognitive function, stabilize the autonomic nervous system and strengthen the brain’s adaptability to stress.

Since exercise also promotes oxygenation, circulation, and formation of new blood vessels in the brain, it can even protect against Alzheimer’s. Another recent study from Frontiers in Sports and Active Living found that exercise acts as an effective antidepressant too. That’s because movement releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter known to improve mood state, thus soothing emotional distress, bolstering self-efficacy and calming depressive or anxious symptoms.

In addition, the social connection of organized sports or fitness classes can also reduce loneliness, the journal continues. What’s more, for most of the popular, exercise is a safe, accessible and highly beneficial adjunct to conventional therapies and pharmaceuticals. (In some cases, it could even be an alternative to medication.)

It’s also a useful coping mechanism to combat unhealthy behaviors sometimes associated with mental illness, like substance abuse or emotional eating.

How to optimize the medicinal benefits of exercise

The World Health Organization advises that most healthy adults, between ages 18 and 64, should aim for at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity per week.

But those are just basic guidelines. It’s important to take your unique factors, such as a mobility limitation and exercise compulsion, into account as well. In other words, a fitness routine needs to be prescribed in the same way as a pharmacological medication, suggests the Ulster Medical Journal. Here’s what to keep in mind if you’re planning to use exercise as medicine:

Choose movement that you enjoy

Choosing a fitness plan that’s enjoyable increases your likelihood of long-term compliance. Different exercises provide unique benefits (aerobic capacity, strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, etc.), so consider your health goals, then find a type of movement that fits those parameters while also making you want to stick with it.

Use the FITT model as a baseline

The acronym FITT stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type. According to Ulster, this framework will help you customize an exercise regimen to meet your own prescriptive needs.

Taking into account your current fitness level, health status, schedule, or other lifestyle specifications, here’s an example of how to use the FITT Model to create your ideal workout routine:

  • Frequency: How often do you need or want to exercise each week? This will help you determine the number of sessions to plan for.
  • Intensity: What amount of exertion can you handle right now, and what do you want to aim for long-term? This will help you choose a realistic intensity level (gentle, moderate, vigorous) to start off with along with what you want to strive for.
  • Time: How much time can you dedicate to your movement routine? This will help you coordinate the duration of each session.
  • Type: What are the wellness goals or lifestyle changes you want to implement? Do you want to build muscle strength, improve cardiac health, regain mobility or boost endurance? This will help you narrow down a type of exercise (aerobic, resistance training, functional movement, etc.).

Make adjustments as you go

This is your prescription, so don’t hesitate to modify it to reflect your shifting needs. Just as a physician might tweak the dose of a medication, you can test out various doses of exercise to find what works for you. Always listen to the body and shift your routine accordingly.

Exercise is the best medicine for total mind-body health

Whether you’re looking for a natural, holistic intervention or want to create a routine to support preventative health, exercise is an ideal solution. Create your own “dose” and remember that it can and will change as you get healthier or seasons shift. Let movement be your medicine and you may be surprised how good you feel!

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