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The importance of exercise for health and wellbeing

Just how important is exercise to our wellbeing? In this article, we explore the connection between physical activity and mental health, and offer some tips to improve these areas.

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We all know that exercise is good for us. However, sometimes it feels like there are so many obstacles to exercising, whether that’s a lack of time, being busy with kids, not having access to equipment or space, or even having an injury.

The thing is, our health should not be our last priority, and exercising doesn’t just impact our physical health. In this article, we’ll be discussing all of the ways in which you can benefit from exercise, including improved physical health, mental health and overall wellbeing. We’ll also explore how mental exercises and nutrition play an important role in your exercise and wellbeing journey.

What is the definition of exercise?

In our physical activity and exercise open step by Trinity College Dublin, they discuss several definitions of physical activity. Caspersen et al in 1985 suggested that physical activity was “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure”. 

However, in 2011, the American College of Sports Medicine added something to that definition. They said physical activity was “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure above resting levels”. This updated definition is more accurate, as we constantly expend energy, even when we’re not being physically active.

The terms ‘exercise’ and ‘physical activity’ are often used interchangeably, but there is actually a difference. Exercise is actually a subset of physical activity, which we have already defined. This means that all exercise is a type of physical activity, but not all physical activity is exercise. 

The main features of exercise are that it is planned, structured, and repetitive. In addition, it is normally carried out for the purpose of improving or maintaining physical health or fitness levels. For example, walking to the shop might be physical activity, but not necessarily exercise, because the purpose of the trip is not health-related.

What is the definition of wellbeing?

Wellbeing is a term we’ve all heard a lot of, but it’s fairly broad. So that you have a better understanding of what we mean when we discuss wellbeing, we’ve come up with some definitions. 

In our definition of wellbeing open step by Coventry University, we provide a definition from Dodge et al, who argued: “Stable wellbeing is when individuals have the psychological, social and physical resources they need to meet a particular psychological, social and/or physical challenge. When individuals have more challenges than resources, the see-saw dips, along with their wellbeing, and vice-versa.”

So here we can see the distinction between our physical, social and psychological health, which in turn make up our overall wellbeing. In our What do we mean by “wellbeing”? open step by the University of York, we discuss the PERMA model developed by Martin Seligman in 2011. He suggested that the five main elements of wellbeing are positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement.

If you’d like to learn more about wellbeing, we have some excellent wellbeing courses available to you that will teach you tactics to live mindfully, feel happier and improve your relationships in daily life. 

What type of exercise is right for you?

The type of exercise you do might depend on a number of things: your current level of fitness, age, area of interest, health problems or disabilities. When you’re starting out, you might want to exercise for shorter periods of time, or try lower impact activities like walking, yoga and cycling. 

EIT Food recommends, in their importance of physical activities open step, that children and adolescents should do about 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a day, with most of that being aerobic. On 3 of those days per week, they should also do activities that strengthen muscle and bone. 

They suggest that adults and older adults should do 150-300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week. On at least 2 days a week, they should also do muscle-strengthening activities. 

Let’s delve deeper into the main different types of exercise you need to do. No matter what your fitness level is, Harvard University recommends that you do a mixture of 4 different main types of exercise:

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic is the same as cardio and essentially increases your breathing and heart rate. It helps keep your heart, lungs and blood vessels healthy. Examples include running, swimming and Zumba, but might also include sports like football or tennis.

Strength training

This involves using tools like dumbbells or your own body weight to build muscle mass and strength. It helps you feel stronger and healthier by controlling body fat, maintaining muscles, and improving bone health. Lifting weights is a great example of this.


This is when you stretch or flex specific muscles in order to improve muscle elasticity. This results in better flexibility, which can lead to fewer injuries, better posture and stress relief. There are many different stretching exercises, though you will generally find that ballet or gymnastics classes will include lots of stretching.


This is about your ability to hold your position and maintain your centre of gravity, either while stationary or during movement. Improving your balance will give you better posture, improved coordination and more joint stability. 

Balance is especially important to maintain as you get older, when falls are more likely. There are lots of exercises you can do to improve balance, but gymnastics and surfing are some examples of sports where balance is needed.

Benefits of exercise and physical activity

There are so many benefits of exercise and physical activity, so we’ll give you a rundown of the main benefits before we go into more detail about things like disease prevention and mental health. These include: 

  • Stronger bones, muscles and joints
  • Healthier weight, leaner muscles and less fat
  • Improved skin
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Less inflammation
  • Reduced stress levels
  • Improved mood
  • The ability to think more clearly
  • Boosted immune system
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Less fall-related injuries

The role of exercise in disease prevention

In adults, physical activity and exercise can reduce your chances of dying from cardiovascular disease, site-specific cancer, type-2 diabetes and more. One of the main reasons for this is because exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect

Trinity College Dublin explains how sedentary behaviour increases the risk of obesity and the diseases mentioned above because high amounts of body fat can cause inflammation. Exercise causes the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to be released, and cytokine IL-6 to be released from muscles. These have anti-inflammatory effects, and so long-term exercise can decrease the risk of disease caused by inflammation.

To learn more about exercise and its role in disease prevention, you might want to try our Exercise Prescription for the Prevention and Treatment of Disease course by Trinity College Dublin, where you’ll explore the evolution of exercise prescription.

How to improve your physical activity levels

If you’re really struggling to make time for exercise or physical activity, you’re not alone. However, it is vital you put your health first, so we’ve provided some tips on how to improve your physical activity levels:

  • Find an activity or exercise that you enjoy or suits you
  • Try exercising with a friend or relative
  • Work physical activity into your daily life
  • Think about your purpose for exercising – what do you want to change?
  • Set goals you want to achieve
  • Make a plan and even write it down for motivation
  • Don’t be disheartened by setbacks, but learn from them
  • Hire a sports coach or personal trainer

The connection between exercise and mental health

You probably already know that there is a connection between exercise and mental health, but in this section, we’re going to clarify this even further. We’ll explore why exercise makes you feel good, and how mental exercises can help athletes.

First though, we’ll start with some facts from Deakin University that help to demonstrate the connection between physical and mental health:

  • Individuals with serious mental disorders have a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and some cancers.
  • Individuals with depression are at an increased risk for cardiometabolic disorders, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Equally, having these disorders can increase the risk of depression.
  • Individuals with gastrointestinal disorders are more likely to have a higher prevalence of adverse mental symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.
  • Individuals with depression commonly report gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation and bloating.

Why exercise makes you feel good

Studies have found that having a well-oxygenated brain can help to manage anxiety and depression, and we know that exercise increases your heart rate and allows more oxygen to be pumped to your brain. 

In addition, exercising for about 30 minutes allows endorphins to be released, which increases your sense of positivity during a workout. This is because endorphins relieve stress and reduce pain. Even more interestingly, exercising over a longer period of time can actually change the structure of your brain. 

A study from Frontiers in Neuroscience found that over time, exercise may actually generate new neurons in the hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that manages emotions. This means that exercise could have long-term benefits for your mental health and wellbeing.

How mental exercises can help athletes

Not only can exercise improve mental health, but mental skills training can also help you to exercise effectively. It’s a two-way street. In our Practical applications of mental practice in sport and exercise open step by Manchester Metropolitan University, we discuss some of the main ways mental exercises can help athletes:

  1. Improve concentration. With mental practise, athletes can rehearse how to react when they make a mistake or come across a problem, and this can help them maintain concentration when they make an error in the future.
  2. Control emotional responses. By imagining being in a stressful situation during sports and exercise, athletes can practise techniques for dealing with stress, such as breathing exercises or keeping calm.
  3. Acquire and practice strategy. Strategies can also be mentally rehearsed. For example, an athlete might imagine different potential strategies and scenarios to help find weaknesses or solutions to problems that might come up.
  4. Cope with pain and injury. When an athlete injures themselves, thinking about their sport or exercise mentally can be an effective tool to help them maintain skills without training. This is because mental practice still helps to develop neural pathways.

How are nutrition and health linked?

So, we already know now that exercise and wellbeing are linked, but where does nutrition fit into all of this? It turns out that what we eat can play a pretty big role in our overall wellbeing. 

In our open step about diet and mental health from Deakin University, we discuss how the gut is the engine of our immune system. When we’re stressed, some of those signals can actually go to our gut rather than our brain, and equally, an unhappy gut can affect our mental health. Consequently, we should think about what we’re eating in order to maintain our wellbeing.

For example, when we feel down, we often crave sugary foods that give us a quick energy boost. However, we’ll then get an energy crash which can make us feel sad again. For an energy boost that lasts and doesn’t negatively affect your mood, try eating complex carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread, starchy vegetables and beans. Eating healthily rather than eating lots of sugar and salt will also help you feel energised while exercising.

If you want to learn more about how to eat well as an athlete, we have some tips in our blog post about how to train like an athlete. If you’re interested in nutrition and health more generally, why not try our Nutrition and Wellbeing course by the University of Aberdeen, or enrol onto our Food and Mood: Improving Mental Health Through Diet and Nutrition course by Deakin University & the Food Mood Centre.

Final thoughts

It’s extremely clear that physical and mental health are connected, and that exercising will have a positive impact on your overall wellbeing. Hopefully, this guide has inspired you to try some new exercises or improve your physical fitness. It might be hard or nerve-racking at first, but you’ll soon reap the positive benefits for your body and mind.

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