It’s Not About Weight: All the Right Reasons to Exercise and Eat Right

If the latest infomercials and magazine covers are any indication, it seems like weight loss is on everyone’s minds these days. And while a healthy weight is a good goal, when it comes to eating right and exercising, it shouldn’t be the sole focus. In fact, when you tally all the reasons to eat well and exercise, we’re not even sure it should make the top 10. Face it: The number on the scale is not a reliable indicatorof overall health. Even worse, according to one study, people who diet or exercise just to lose weight quit a lot sooner than people who make healthy changes for other reasons. Oh, and they really don’t lose weight in the long term. The researchers found that the most successful motivation for sticking to a healthy lifestyle was « feeling better about themselves » for women and « better health » for men.

And yes, those are both great rationales to exercise and eating right, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the good things you’ll bring into your life. Here are 45 science-backed reasons to start living a healthier life today that have zilch to do with your weight.

1. It works as an antidepressant.

Whether you suffer from the winter blahs or have chronic depression, the blues can make everything in life feel harder. Antidepressant medications have been a godsend for many people, but one study found that depression sufferers who did aerobic exercise showed just as much improvement in their symptoms as people on medication. In fact, after four months, 60 to 70 percent of the subjects couldn’t even be classified as having depression. Even better, a follow-up to the study found that the effects from the exercise lasted longer than those from the medication.

2. It reduces PMS symptoms.

Ladies, that monthly crying jag brought on by a commercial for a Nicholas Sparks movie or the hulk-like rage when your boyfriend slurps his soup may not be entirely your fault (hormones, holla!). But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to help it. In one study, teen girls—was there ever a moodier bunch?—performed 60-minute cardio sessions three times a week for eight weeks. Afterward they reported their symptoms from PMS, especially depression and anger, were markedly better, so much so that the researchers concluded that exercise should be prescribed as a cure for PMS.

3. It reduces stress and anxiety.

Pop quiz: When you’re super stressed out and worried about ________ (work/relationship status/the end of Serial/life in general) what is the fastest way to chill out? A) Mainline a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. B) Go for a serious sweat fest. or C) Call your mom. Sorry, Mom, but science says that working out is one of the fastest ways to clear cortisol, the stress hormone, out of your system and calm a frantic mind. Plus new research points to the fact that ice cream or other “comfort foods” won’t make much of a dent in stress levels—not that we have anything against an occasional scoop of chunky monkey!

4. It boosts creativity.

The next time writer’s block hits or you need new ideas for your departmental meeting, try taking a quick stroll around the block. A recent study found that walking improved both convergent and divergent thinking, the two types associated with enhanced creativity.

5. It wipes out allergies.

Sneezing, watery eyes, and snot-cicles (’tis the season!) can really take the fun out of a workout, but there’s a good reason to lace up your gym shoes even with an allergy attack. Researchers in Thailand reported that running for 30 minutes can reduce sneezing, itching, congestion, and runny nose by up to 90 percent.

6. It strengthens your heart.

It may feel like your heart is thumping itself out of your chest during those hill sprints, but your ticker will thank you later. As shown in an extensive report from the American Heart Association, exercise strengthens your heart muscle as well as reduces your risk of heart disease and other related conditions. So the next time you’re sweating through spin class, just imagine it’s a Valentine you’re sending to your body.

7. It helps you resist temptation.

They don’t call it a « runner’s high » for nothing! Whether you’re addicted to sugar, cigarettes, or even heroin, exercise could play an important role in resisting your substance of choice. In one study, scientists found that the endorphin rush released during exercise acts on the same neural pathways as addictive substances. The result? Mice in this study opted for the treadmill over the high from an amphetamine-laced solution, suggesting that humans could do the same.

8. It reduces risk of metabolic syndrome…

If there’s a modern-day health villain, it would be the scary-sounding metabolic syndrome. Comprised of three factors—increased blood pressure/cholesterol, high blood sugar, and excessive fat around the waist—it’s one of the strongest indicators you’re headed for an early grave. But before you start planning the funeral (open bar, smoke machines, and a 12-piece band, check!), researchers say that exercise can almost totally obliterate metabolic syndrome and even reverse the damage. Not all exercise works equally well, however, as one study proves intensity is key. So rather than stay at one steady pace, try intervals that will take your heart rate up and down.

9. … And lessens the risk of oodles of other diseases too.

Many types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease—we’d be here all day if we listed all the illnesses that exercising lowers your risk for. Exercise is such a health preventative superstar that Jordan Metzel, M.D., recently declared it to be « a miracle drug that prevents almost every illness, is 100 percent effective, and has very few side effects. » Even better, we don’t have to wait for FDA approval for this magical panacea!

10. It protects your peepers.

We hate to break this to you, but you’re staring at a screen right now. Welcome to the eye-strain club! (T-shirts available online… if you can squint enough to find ‘em.) But recent research found that one of the best ways to protect your eyes and stave off age-related vision loss is regular cardiovascular exercise. In one study, active mice kept twice as many retinal neurons as the sedentary fur balls. But it isn’t just a benefit for the four-legged; a separate study found a similar correlation in humans.

11. It adds years to your life…

People who exercise live longer. Yeah, we said it. Research has shown that you can add up to seven years to your life by exercising a minimum of 150 minutes a week (that’s just three days of working out for 50 minutes), regardless of what you weigh.

12. … And life to your years.

Even better, those extra years will be happy ones: A recent study found that people who exercise reported feeling happier, more excited, and had more enthusiasm for life than their couch-potato peers.

13. It makes you respect your body.

It’s supremely easy to focus on the six-pack abs or bikini bridges or other (possibly unattainable) physical attributes. But instead of getting caught up in comparisons, lace up your shoes and head to the gym. Using our bodies not only strengthens them but builds our gratitude for all the cool stuff they can do, and research supports this. After all, being an athlete has nothing to do the mirror—it’s about how your body can move.

14. It strengthens bones.

Bone density may not be the sexiest subject, but we all should be aware of it, especially as it helps us maintain a strong and mobile body. And according to one landmark study, the best way to build bone density and reduce the risk of fractures and osteoporosis into old age is to do weight-bearing exercises like running or dancing. (But really any weight-bearing sport will do, even “wife-carrying,” if that’s your thang.) The researchers found that adults who exercised moderately or strenuously had better bone density than those who exercised little or not at all. Keep it up though: Adults who quit exercising later in life lost bone mass even if they’d exercised regularly earlier in their youth.

15. It saves money.

We know. Gym memberships are expensive. Home equipment can be an investment. And have you priced running shoes lately? But it turns out that investing in your fitness is as frugal as it is smart. One Fortune 500 company estimates that for each dollar spent on preventative health, including exercise, it saves $2.71 in future health costs. That’s a wise practice to for you to adopt as the CEO of your health too.

16. It helps your fertility.

Is there a baby in your future? Better hit the weight floor. Harvard researchers found that men who exercised had a higher concentration of sperm in their semen and that the sperm was of better-than-average quality. Women also get a boost in fertility from getting their run (or kettlebells or yoga or… ) on. Ameta-analysis looking at nearly 27,000 women found that those who worked out had lower rates overall of infertility, higher rates of implantation, and lower rates of miscarriage. One caveat: Women who exercised too strenuously or too much impaired their fertility, so it’s all about balance. Researchers advise hitting the gym three times a week for an hour each time.

17. It makes you a sex god.

Good news for both ladies and gents: Sweating in the gym can improve your sweating in the bedroom. But in this case women really score (ahem), as certain exercises have been linked to « coregasms, » or getting an orgasm from doing abs work. (Strong abs and strong orgasms? It’s win-win.) But even if hanging leg raises don’t send you into ecstasy, you still benefit from increased strength in your pelvic floor. And a separate study found that men who work out have a lower incidence of impotency and erectile dysfunction while experiencing more powerful orgasms. Plus these guys reported having sex more often.

18. It improves self-esteem.

Mirror, mirror on the (gym) wall, who’s the fairest of them all? It doesn’t take magic to know that working out makes you look better on the outside. But scientific research
adds that it also makes us feel better about ourselves on the inside. In an analysis of research on the subject, exercisers report higher self-esteem and lower incidence of negative thoughts about their bodies. Plus it boosts confidence at work and other in areas of life too.

19. It helps you sleep like a baby.

Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Snoozing helps your body recover and repair damage, renews your energy, and clears out your mind. But sometimes sleep does not come easily, oftentimes on the nights you need it the most. Exercise is like all-natural Ambien (minus the freaky sleep-driving stories). In a meta-analysis that looked at dozens of sleep studies, researchers found that people who exercised regularly had less incidence of insomnia and a higher quality of sleep. In addition, for people who did suffer from insomnia, adding consistent daily exercise significantly reduced their sleepless nights.

20. It doesn’t just make you look younger, it makes you be younger.

Thanks to that sweaty glow and leftover runner’s high, people who work out often look younger than their friends, and now research has found that exercisers truly are younger, on a cellular level, than their same-aged peers. Telomeres, the cap on the ends of DNA, start out long at birth and get progressively shorter with age. Up until recently it was thought there wasn’t much we could do to change that, but a new studyshowed that endurance athletes have longer telomeres than their peers, while a second study found that moderate exercise can lengthen your telomeres by up to 10 percent. So now you can feel free to lie about your age with impunity!

21. It pumps you up.

Hey there, He-Man (or She-Ra)! You don’t need a scientist to tell you that working out builds muscle and coordination. If you’ve ever needed to lift a 50-pound bag of cat litter off the bottom shelf at the grocery store or shovel two feet of snow off a driveway, you’ll be grateful for all the sweat sessions that make it look—and feel—like a cakewalk. (It’s just part of being an everyday hero.)

22. It blasts bad fat and boosts good fat. (Yes, there is good fat!)

In our fat-phobic society, the squishy stuff is public enemy No. 1. But not all fat is problematic. Brown fat is a metabolic boon, and hip and thigh fat in women has some possible hormonal benefits too. But the one kind you definitely don’t want is visceral fat, the type in your midsection packed around internal organs, which can do a ton of damage. Exercise to the rescue! We know busting a sweat can reduce fat in general, but belly fat is particularly susceptible to exercise, and a study from last year found that high-intensity interval training blasted belly fat the fastest.

23. It makes you a good example for your loved ones.

We don’t want to creep you out, but people are watching you. Whether it’s your friends, your parents, your siblings, your significant other (or just the cute neighbor next door), your circle of friends and family observe what you do and take note. And your exercise encourages others to do the same. We regularlymirror others around us in our gestures and behaviors. So consider that every time you’re heading to the gym, you’re setting an example, encouraging others to do the same. And the more, the merrier—when it comes to cardio, nothing’s more fun than a conga line, right?

24. It makes you smarter.

So much for the dumb bodybuilder stereotype—building muscles also helps you build brain cells. Ameta-analysis of the effects of exercise on the brain found that fitness improves memory, boosts cognition, helps you learn faster, increases brain volume, and even makes you a better reader. In addition,recent studies have found that working out helps prevent the cognitive decline as we age and diseases like Alzheimer’s.

25. It manages chronic pain.

When you’re living with chronic pain, getting out of bed is hard enough, much less heading out to pump some iron or go for a run. Yet research shows that a moderate exercise program gives both short-term and long-term improvements for people who have chronic pain, even if the underlying condition remains. In short, exercise may not fix all your problems, but it will help you deal with them better.

1. It fattens your wallet.

Oh, kale, why must you cost so much? People often lament that healthy food is pricier than processed junk food. And a recent study found that all that produce and lean meat adds about $1.50 a day to food costs. But before you ditch that apple for an apple fritter, the researchers continued to say that when you include the cost savings from preventing health problems—a savings of $2.71 for every dollar spent—you still come out way ahead.

2. It protects your bones.

No walker for you, sonny! Eating a healthy diet full of calcium from dairy products, vitamin D from produce, and folic acid from leafy greens supports your skeleton, preventing osteoporosis and fractures in later life.

3. It revs up your fertility.

This one’s for the dads-to-be: A recent study found that eating swimmers (as in fish) boosts your swimmers (as in sperm). For women, the effect of a good diet is even more potent, as a separate study found that access to a wide variety of healthful foods was the number one predictor of high fertility rates in women who aren’t using birth control.

4. It conquers cramps.

Ladies: Pick your PMS poison, and there’s a nutritional remedy for it. And no, it’s not based on old wives’ tales. Modern science backs up these claims: The fiber in fruits and veggies fights bloat, magnesium-rich foods (like dark chocolate!) prevent cramps, iron in red meat helps with fatigue, calcium in dairy products is calming, and the zinc in green plants helps can smooth out mood swings.

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