Cardio Exercise: Good for More Than Your Heart

October 16, 2020

Heart health is just the beginning.
You may already know that aerobic or “cardio” exercise – the kind that gets your heart pumping – is good for your heart. It lowers your resting pulse and strengthens your heart muscle. That’s why when you slowly extend your aerobic workout, you’re able to go longer and longer distances. But your heart isn’t the only part of your body that benefits.

lower blood sugar
If you have diabetes, aerobic exercise helps lower blood sugar (glucose) levels and improves insulin resistance. Resistance training, such as weight lifting, is also a good option. A combination of the two seems to help the most. If you have diabetes, especially if you take insulin or other medications, talk to your doctor before starting a new fitness routine.

Improve your mood.
Aerobic exercise like running can be very helpful in relieving depression and anxiety, and your doctor or therapist may recommend it as a treatment. Part of the reason may be that it seems to expand your hippocampus – the area of the brain that manages emotions – and slow down the breakdown of brain cells. Stick with it regularly for a few months to get the most out of it.

It’ll help you sleep better.
Aerobic exercise may be good for your shut-eye. Scientists know that it can help you maintain an even mood, wind down before bedtime, and establish a healthy sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm). The exact brain effects aren’t always clear, but people who exercise more tend to get more deep “slow wave” sleep, which helps their brain and body renew. But try not to exercise too close to bedtime, which can disrupt sleep for some people.

Think better.
People who do more aerobic exercise may be better at “executive function” – the ability to organize information, interpret it, and take action. Just one exercise session can increase blood flow to the part of your brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which helps control your executive functions. In the long term, exercise seems to help brain cells in your prefrontal cortex connect more easily.

It’s more memorable.
People who move more are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. That’s in part because exercise helps prevent things that can improve your chances of getting dementia, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression.

Better learning
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change when you learn and do new things. Younger brains are generally better at this than older brains, but you can help maintain your neuroplasticity through aerobic exercise as well as resistance training.

Help relieve arthritis pain
As we age, we get osteoarthritis in our knees and other joints. Aerobic exercise, such as jogging or cycling, is one of the most effective ways to relieve pain and inflammation. And whether you’re walking, swimming or rowing, your heart becomes healthier, which makes it easier to stay active. When you combine physical activity with a healthy diet, you can shed extra pounds, which takes pressure off your knees.

Breathe better.
Even if you have lung disease, regular aerobic exercise can help improve your breathing. If the gym isn’t your thing, walking, jogging, or playing tennis regularly can do the trick. Just be sure to check with your doctor about your exercise program if you already have breathing problems.

Helps fight germs
Regular aerobic exercise seems to help your body fight off diseases caused by viruses and bacteria. Part of the reason is that it helps blood flow better around your body, which means that germ-fighting substances get to where they need to go. Scientists are continuing to study exactly how exercise helps strengthen the immune system – your body’s defense against bacteria.

Improve your cholesterol
Exercise seems to raise your HDL “good” cholesterol. It can also lower your LDL “bad” cholesterol, although you may need to make your workouts more intense to get the full effect. Unhealthy cholesterol numbers make you more likely to build plaque in your arteries that could lead to a heart attack or stroke. If you’ve been sick or haven’t exercised in a while, talk to your doctor about starting a fitness routine.

How much exercise is appropriate?
The standard recommendation is 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week. This is a good start. However, if you increase to 300 minutes or more per week, it will provide even more benefits. The length of each session is also important. Some of the best brain benefits come during exercise sessions that last a bit longer: 45 to 60 minutes.