2.2 Physiological Benefits

The physiological benefits associated with regular physical activity participation range from risk reductions for several diseases and health maladies, to improvements in mobility, fitness, and overall quality of life (Kravitz, 2007). The following summary of health benefits associated with participation in physical activity is a broad overview drawn from scientific studies conducted in adult populations, and does not take into account individual differences. Please refer to a healthcare professional for further information, especially regarding your individual needs and medical background before beginning an exercise regimen.

Reduced Risk of Premature Death

Physical activity results in a reduction of systemic inflammation in the body and has been linked to a reduction in all-cause risk of premature death. Inflammation in the body is strongly related to future risk for chronic diseases and conditions which may jeopardize health. Physical activity results in a reduction of systemic inflammation in the body and has been linked to a reduction in all-cause risk of premature death. Further, research indicates that the protective benefits of physical activity may improve with additional time spent in exercise. In one recent study, individuals with the highest levels of physical activity participation and fitness had the lowest risk of premature death (Warburton, Nicol, & Bredin, 2006).

However, individuals should be aware that overtraining (i.e., participating in physical activity to the point where risks outweigh benefits) may occur. Therefore, adhering to the physical activity guidelines (Chapter 1) is a wise strategy for students beginning a physical activity regimen.

Reduced Risk for Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as heart attack and stroke, is the leading health-related cause of death in U.S. adult men and women (American Heart Association, 2014). Improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness have been associated with risk reductions for CVD (Garber et al., 2011). Specifically, participating in the recommended duration of physical activity as outlined in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans has been found to provide the greatest health benefits, which include but are not limited to: improved coronary blood flow, decreased blood coagulation, and enhanced cardiac function (Nocon et al., 2008).


A person swimming in a pool with goggles and swimcap.
Participation in aerobic physical activities (such as swimming, running, or cycling) may improve cardiorespiratory fitness, and protect against the development of cardiovascular disease. Cardiorespiratory fitness is best improved when the selected activity is performed continuously and for an extended duration of time.
Photo by Mia Gracia Tabili on Unsplash

Reduced Risk for Diabetes

Physical activity and exercise also play a role in metabolic functions such as the body’s insulin sensitivity (how responsive the body is to insulin) and subsequent ability to balance blood glucose levels. Decreased insulin sensitivity and elevated insulin and blood glucose levels have been linked to diabetes. Regular physical activity participation increases insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, with both aerobic and resistance exercise associated with a risk reduction for type 2 diabetes (Steyn et al., 2004).

Improved Blood Pressure Control

A variety of physical activity types have been associated with decreased blood pressure, such as habitual aerobic exercise and dynamic resistance training. Hypertension, or an abnormal elevation in blood pressure, is a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, and congestive heart failure (American Heart Association, 2014). A variety of physical activity types have been associated with decreased blood pressure, such as habitual aerobic exercise and dynamic resistance training (Kravitz, 2007; Fagard & Cornelissen, 2007). Notably, recent studies have even examined and cited the numerous health benefits of regular yoga practice among hypertensive individuals (Hagins, Selfe, & Innes, 2013).

Improved Cholesterol Levels

Elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL; the “bad” cholesterol) and depressed levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL; the “good” cholesterol) have been linked to a variety of health risks, such as heart disease (Kravitz, 2007). Regular aerobic exercise has the ability to alter lipid protein levels and reduce triglyceride levels in the body, resulting in increased HDL and decreased LDL (Kodama et al., 2007).

Reduced Risk for Stroke

Participation in aerobic and anaerobic exercise is recommended to reduce the risk of stroke. Studies indicate that individuals who participated in a moderate amount of physical activity reduced their risk of stroke by up to 20%, compared with those who participated in a greater amount of activity increasing this risk reduction to 27% (Lee, Folsom, & Blair, 2003; Sacco et al., 2006).

Reduced Risk for Some Types of Cancer

…..physically active men and women exhibited a 30%–40% risk reduction for colon cancer, physically active women presented with a 20%–30% risk reduction for breast cancer compared with their inactive counterparts. Numerous studies have shown associations between reduced risk for colon and breast cancer and physical activity participation. In detail, physically active men and women exhibited a 30%–40% risk reduction for colon cancer, and physically active women presented with a 20%–30% risk reduction for breast cancer compared with their inactive counterparts (Samad, Taylor, Marshall, & Chapman, 2005; Wolin, Yan, Colditz, & Lee, 2009; Marcell, 2003). Systematic reviews spanning decades of research indicate that moderate-intensity physical activities produce a greater protective effect than low-intensity activities (McNeely et al., 2006; Samad et al., 2005; Wolin et al., 2009).

Improved Bone Health and Musculoskeletal Fitness

Just as resistance training improves muscle strength, weight-bearing resistance training and aerobic physical activity may stimulate bones to increase in strength (Kravitz, 2007). Research indicates that participation in physical activity across the lifespan may positively impact factors related to bone health, such as bone mineral density, mass, or strength. Bone mass accruement predominantly occurs within childhood and early adulthood (Gunter, Almstedt, & Janz, 2012). However, individuals may improve bone health in later years by participating in specific types of physical activity. Resistance exercises (i.e., weight-lifting programs) appear to have the greatest effects on bone mineral density (Kravitz, 2007), with this type of activity recommended at least twice weekly (Nikander et al., 2010). Risk for osteoporosis, an age-related bone disease characterized by loss of bone density and increased risk for bone fractures, may therefore be decreased through habitual weight-bearing physical activity participation–particularly among postmenopausal women (Kravitz, 2007).

Musculoskeletal health is also impacted by age-related factors and can be mediated by engagement in resistance training and other weight-bearing activities. Sarcopenia is the age-related loss of muscle mass and strength; rates of sarcopenia are relatively consistent at approximately 1%–2% per year starting at age 50 (Nikander et al., 2010). Of note, greater levels of musculoskeletal fitness are positively associated with feelings of independence and autonomy related to one’s mobility, balanced blood glucose, improved bone health, decreased risk of fall and injury, and enhanced overall quality of life (Nikander et al., 2010). Nonetheless, it is clear that physical activity facilitates similar beneficial effects on bone density and musculoskeletal health no matter an individual’s age, but it is critical to commit to lifelong physical activity regimens in order to experience the greatest benefits.


Children on a soccer field with their coach
Participating in weight-bearing physical activities in childhood improves overall bone health. Adults may continue to positively impact bone strength by engaging in resistance training as least twice per week.
Photo by Adrià Crehuet Cano on Unsplash

Improved Joint Health

Arthritis is a serious health condition characterized by pain, stiffness, and possible loss of joint function (Kravitz, 2007). Regular physical activity participation may be effective in treating symptoms of arthritis. However, one must first concentrate on gradually increasing cardiovascular fitness, with progressive overload of resistance exercises following thereafter. It is also critical to slowly increase flexibility and enhance joint stability through activities requiring increased range of motion and balance (Lin, Davey, & Cochrane, 2004; Maes & Kravitz, 2004).

Improved Ability to Maintain Healthy Body Composition and Weight Status

Currently, obesity rates among adults in the United States are approximately 35-36%, with approximately 17-18% of youth also classified as obese (Smith & Smith, 2016). Overweight and obesity are often categorized according to body mass index (BMI). Body mass index calculates an individual’s mass in kilograms, and divides this number by the individual’s height in meters-squared (BMI = kg/m2). According to BMI criteria, overweight is defined as a BMI ≥ 25 to 29.9 kg/m2, while obesity is defined as a BMI ≥ 30 kg/m2 and severe obesity including values ≥ 35 kg/m2 (Smith & Smith, 2016). Individuals should be aware that BMI does not account for body composition (i.e., lean muscle mass or body fat percentage), and thus is in some ways a flawed measure. However, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to evaluate an individual’s height and weight, and thus BMI is a personal metric commonly utilized in determining health trends within the population.

Each individual possesses unique needs related to exercise prescription… Comorbidities common to obesity are numerous and include, but are not limited to: increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, decreased mobility, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and stroke (Smith & Smith, 2016). Additionally, obese individuals suffer from increased risk for psychological comorbidities and all-cause mortality compared to their healthy-weight counterparts, with obesity implicated as the fifth highest cause of all deaths globally (Smith & Smith, 2016). Fortunately, studies indicate that regular physical activity participation may result in reduced body fat and improved weight control (Slentz et al., 2004). Prior to starting an exercise regimen with a goal of weight loss, individuals are encouraged to consult with their healthcare provider to create an appropriate program. Each individual possesses unique needs related to exercise prescription for weight control, with these unique needs important to consider when implementing the exercise regimen.


Comprehension check:

Which of the aforementioned physiological benefits of physical activity relate to you personally? Consider your current physical activity habits, and which chronic diseases or comorbidities you may be at risk for based on your current behavior and family history. Please explain your answer. (Hint: think of your health status today, 10 years in the future, 20 years in the future, etc.).

Works Cited

American Heart Association. 2014. https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/ahamah-public/@wcm/@sop/@smd/documents/downloadable/ucm_470704.pdf

Fagard, R. H., & Cornelissen, V. A. (2007). Effect of exercise on blood pressure control in hypertensive patients. European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention & Rehabilitation, 14(1), 12-17.

Garber, C. E., Blissmer, B., Deschenes, M. R., Franklin, B. A., Lamonte, M. J., Lee, I. M., … Swain, D. P. (2011). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 43(7), 1334-1359.

Gunter, K. B., Almstedt, H. C., & Janz, K. F. (2012). Physical activity in childhood may be the key to optimizing lifespan skeletal health. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 40(1), 13.

Hagins, M., Selfe, T., & Innes, K. (2013). Effectiveness of yoga for hypertension: systematic review and meta-analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013.

Kodama, S., Tanaka, S., Saito, K., Shu, M., Sone, Y., Onitake, F., … & Ohashi, Y. (2007). Effect of aerobic exercise training on serum levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol: a meta-analysis. Archives of Internal Medicine, 167(10), 999-1008.

Kravitz, L. (2007). The 25 most significant health benefits of physical activity and exercise. IDEA Fitness Journal, 4(9), 54-63.

Lee, C., Folsom, A. R., & Blair, S. N. (2003). Physical activity and stroke risk a meta-analysis. Stroke, 34(10), 2475-2481.

Lin, S. Y., Davey, R. C., & Cochrane, T. (2004). Community rehabilitation for older adults with osteoarthritis of the lower limb: a controlled clinical trial. Clinical Rehabilitation, 18(1), 92-101.

Maes, J., & Kravitz, L. (2004). Training clients with arthritis. IDEA Personal Trainer, 15(2), 26–31.

Marcell, T.J. (2003). Sarcopenia: Causes, consequences, and preventions. Journal of Gerontology, 58A(10), 911–16.

McNeely, M. L., Campbell, K. L., Rowe, B. H., Klassen, T. P., Mackey, J. R., & Courneya, K. S. (2006). Effects of exercise on breast cancer patients and survivors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 175(1), 34-41.

Nikander, R., Sievänen, H., Heinonen, A., Daly, R. M., Uusi-Rasi, K., & Kannus, P. (2010). Targeted exercise against osteoporosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis for optimising bone strength throughout life. BMC Medicine, 8(1), 1.

Nocon, M., Hiemann, T., Müller-Riemenschneider, F., Thalau, F., Roll, S., & Willich, S. N. (2008). Association of physical activity with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention & Rehabilitation, 15(3), 239-246.

Sacco, R. L., Adams, R., Albers, G., Alberts, M. J., Benavente, O., Furie, K., … & Johnston, S. C. (2006). Guidelines for prevention of stroke in patients with ischemic stroke or transient ischemic attack: a statement for healthcare professionals from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association Council on Stroke: co-sponsored by the Council on Cardiovascular Radiology and Intervention: the American Academy of Neurology affirms the value of this guideline. Circulation, 113(10), e409-e449.

Samad, A. K. A., Taylor, R. S., Marshall, T., & Chapman, M. A. (2005). A meta‐analysis of the association of physical activity with reduced risk of colorectal cancer. Colorectal Disease, 7(3), 204-213.

Slentz, C. A., Duscha, B. D., Johnson, J. L., Ketchum, K., Aiken, L. B., Samsa, G. P., … & Kraus, W. E. (2004). Effects of the amount of exercise on body weight, body composition, and measures of central obesity: STRRIDE—a randomized controlled study. Archives of Internal Medicine, 164(1), 31-39.

Smith, K. B., & Smith, M. S. (2016). Obesity statistics. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice, 43(1), 121-135.

Steyn, N. P., Mann, J., Bennett, P. H., Temple, N., Zimmet, P., Tuomilehto, J., … & Louheranta, A. (2004). Diet, nutrition and the prevention of type 2 diabetes. Public Health Nutrition, 7(1a), 147-165.

Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174(6), 801-809.

Wolin, K. Y., Yan, Y., Colditz, G. A., & Lee, I. M. (2009). Physical activity and colon cancer prevention: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Cancer, 100(4), 611-616.


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A Guide to Physical Activity Copyright © 2019 by Eydie Kramer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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