Exercise: Health benefits, types, how it works

When we talk about exercise, we nearly always refer to physical exercise. Exercise is the physical exertion of the body – making the body do a physical activity which results in a level of physical fitness and mental health.

In other words, exercise aims to maintain or enhance our physical fitness and general health. In this article, we will talk about the different sorts of exercise that are available, how they benefit the body, and how to design a fitness regime.

People exercise for many different reasons; these include:

Strengthening muscles.

Optimizing the cardiovascular system.

Practicing specific athletic skills.

Controlling body weight.

For fun.

To win.

To socialize.

As a form of escapism.

Similarly, people don’t exercise enough for various reasons. A study found that stress levels and cultural considerations affect how much and for what reasons college students exercise.

Fast facts on exercise

Here are some key points about exercise. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

Exercise can be broadly categorized as aerobic, anaerobic, or agility training.

Exercise improves your mood.

Physical activity after the menopause reduces breast cancer risk.

Regular exercise improves your sex life.

Exercise makes you eat less by suppressing appetite hormones.

Types of exercise

There are three broad intensities of exercise:

Light exercise – for example, going for a walk.

Moderate exercise – makes the individual slightly out of breath. Examples include walking briskly, cycling moderately, or walking up a hill.

Vigorous exercise – pushes the body much nearer to its limit. This could include running, cycling fast, and heavy weight training.

Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Life Science Division in Berkeley, CA reported in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology that brisk walking is as effective as running in reducing a person’s risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Exercise can also be divided into three broad categories: aerobic, anaerobic, and agility training.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise aims to improve the body’s consumption of oxygen. The word aerobic means “with oxygen,” it refers to the fact that our bodies use oxygen in metabolism. Most aerobic exercise is done at average levels of intensity for longer periods.

Man jogging on a beach.
Jogging for 20 minutes is a form of aerobic exercise that can improve the body’s consumption of oxygen.

An aerobic exercise session involves warming up, exercising for at least 20 minutes, and then cooling down. Aerobic exercise mostly uses the large muscle groups.

A physical therapist, Col. Pauline Potts, and an exercise physiologist, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, both in the United States Air Force, were the first to use the term aerobic exercise during the 1960s.

Dr. Cooper wanted to find out why some very strong people were poor at long-distance running, swimming, and cycling.

He used a bicycle ergometer, a machine like an exercise bike that registers how much energy is used. He researched people’s ability to use oxygen.

In 1968, Dr. Cooper published his book Aerobics. The book included scientific programs using aerobic exercises, such as swimming, running, cycling, and walking. The book became a bestseller. All current aerobic programs use Cooper’s data as a baseline.

Aerobic exercise is generally performed at a moderate level of intensity over a long period. Running for 20 minutes is an aerobic exercise while sprinting 200 meters is not. Playing badminton for 30 minutes is an aerobic activity if the movements of the players are fairly continuous. Golf, on the other hand, is not seen as aerobic because the heart rate has not been raised at a sustained level for long enough.

Aerobic exercise is considered to have the following benefits:

Strengthens the muscles that are involved in respiration (breathing).

Strengthens and enlarges the heart muscle (lowers the pulse rate at rest).

Tones muscles throughout most of the body.

Reduces blood pressure.

Improves circulation.

Raises the number of red blood cells, which improves oxygen transportation.

The sleep quality of insomnia patients can improve with moderate exercise.

Improves mental health.

A study found that exercise may reduce migraine symptoms.

Reduces the risk of heart disease and cardiovascular problems.

Helps improve survival rates of patients with cardiovascular diseases significantly.

High impact aerobic exercise stimulates bone growth and reduces the risk of osteoporosis.

Increases stamina or endurance – aerobic activity increases the body’s ability to store energy molecules such as fats and carbohydrates within the muscle.

Increases blood flow through muscles.

People who exercise regularly tend to live longer than those who do not, even if they are overweight and their exercise only includes brisk walks, according to researchers from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD. They wrote: “This finding may help convince currently inactive persons that a modest physical activity program is ‘worth it’ for health benefits, even if it may not result in weight control.”

Woman and man lifting weights.
Anaerobic exercise such as weight lifting can improve strength and muscle.

The aim of anaerobic exercise is to build power, strength, and muscle.

The muscles are exercised at high intensity for short durations – no more than about 2 minutes.

Anaerobic means “without air.” Anaerobic exercises improve muscle strength and our ability to move with quick bursts of speed. When thinking of anaerobic exercise, think of short and fast or short and intensive. Anaerobic exercises include:

weight lifting


intensive and fast skipping (with a rope)

interval training


any rapid burst of hard exercise

Oxygen is not used for energy during anaerobic exercise. During this type of exercise, a byproduct – lactic acid – is produced. Lactic acid is why muscles ache when they have been used intensively; it must be used up during recovery before that muscle can be used again in another anaerobic session.

During the recovery period, oxygen is used to give the muscle a “refill” – to replenish the muscle’s energy that was used up during the intensive exercise.

Overall, anaerobic exercise uses up fewer calories than aerobic exercise. The cardiovascular benefits of aerobic exercises are greater than the cardiovascular benefits of anaerobic exercises. However, anaerobic exercise is better at building strength and muscle mass, while still benefitting the heart and lungs.

As more muscle is built, more fat is burned, even at rest. Muscles burn more calories per unit volume than any other tissue in the body. A muscular person burns more calories than a non-muscular person, even if while they are resting.

How does anaerobic exercise work?

After a short, intensive burst of activity, there is a temporary shortage of oxygen being delivered to the working muscles at first. The production of anaerobic energy creates a byproduct – lactic acid. As mentioned above, lactic acid causes muscle fatigue, which is the reason the session cannot last long. However, after regular training, the body becomes better equipped to handle lactic acid.

After several practice sessions, the body becomes better at getting rid of lactic acid – it also learns how to produce less of it. At the same time, the body produces buffers that postpone fatigue during an anaerobic session.

Anaerobic exercises offer the following benefits:

The individual gets stronger.

They experience growth in muscle mass.

Strengthens bones.

Strengthens and protects the joints.

Helps control body weight.

The person can withstand a greater buildup of lactic acid and other waste substances, and their body can eliminate them quicker.

Agility training

Agility training aims to improve a person’s ability to speed up and slow down and change directions while maintaining balance and control.

In tennis, for example, agility training helps the player maintain control over their court positioning through good recovery after each shot.

A crucial skill in tennis is to be able to position yourself in the court so that you can hit the ball to maximum effect. Agility does not only help the tennis player get to the ball more effectively and set up for a better shot; it also gives them better balance when hitting the ball.

A girl playing tennis.
Agility training is essential to sports such as tennis, soccer, and hockey.

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