Exercise can have profoundly positive effects on our health, helping prevent heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression – but did you know it could also extend your lifespan?

Evidence on the benefits of physical activity comes from observational studies and systematic reviews, showing both moderate-intensity physical activity and vigorous intensity can improve health outcomes.

Cardiovascular Disease

Physical activity, specifically moderate to vigorous intensity exercise, has been proven to lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions like diabetes and cancer. Exercise also helps maintain a healthy weight while improving mood; but before beginning an exercise program for yourself it is advisable to speak to your healthcare provider first as it could have potentially negative implications if any existing health conditions exist.

Cardiovascular diseases, including coronary heart disease and stroke, are the leading cause of death worldwide. Yet many can be avoided through lifestyle modifications like quitting smoking and weight loss as well as eating nutritiously and exercising regularly.

Secondary prevention refers to efforts undertaken after you experience your first heart attack or stroke, undergo angioplasty or bypass surgery, or develop any form of cardiovascular disease. These measures could include taking aspirin and cholesterol-reducing statin medications as well as quitting smoking, managing stress levels effectively, adhering to a heart-healthy diet plan and engaging in regular physical activity.

Primary prevention refers to efforts undertaken in an attempt to stop an event from ever taking place in the first place, whether that means worrying cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure or cholesterol levels from rising, but you haven’t experienced a heart attack or stroke yet. This method involves changing lifestyle habits that increase risk, such as quitting smoking, eating more fruits and vegetables, cutting salt intake and increasing exercise intake.

Studies demonstrate the benefits of exercise on heart health; yet most adults fail to meet national recommendations due to inactivity during leisure time, sedentary behaviour at work and home, or not having access to safe locations where physical activity can take place.

Effective approaches for encouraging physical activity among populations include creating conducive environments, offering education and support to individuals who require it, and developing policy initiatives suited specifically to local environments and contexts. It is also essential that absolute claims about physical activity’s benefits be avoided as some forms such as overtraining or extreme sports could have negative outcomes for some.

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Diabetes

Multiple factors have led to an increase in physical inactivity worldwide, such as an increase in sedentary behavior at work and home and an increase in passive transportation methods such as busses. According to WHO (2016), 81% of adolescents aged 11-17 years and 85% of adults aged 18-64 years worldwide are considered insufficiently active (WHO 2016).

Regular physical activity plays an essential role in preventing noncommunicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and certain cancers; but its benefits also extend far beyond this realm – it has a positive impact on mental health, sleep quality, energy levels and stress reduction – not to mention reduced risks associated with stress, clinical depression and dementia.

Physical activity and its association to risk of diabetes have an inverse correlation regardless of BMI, with more pronounced effects among individuals who are overweight or obese. Furthermore, increased physical activity levels have positive impacts on glycemic outcomes as well as insulin sensitivity overall.

Men with high summary scores for daily physical activity were at 35% lower risk for diabetes compared to men with a lower score, and women who participated regularly experienced 24% reduced diabetes risk.

However, to reap the full benefits of physical activity with diabetes it is crucial that they gradually increase their level of physical activity while engaging in an appropriate combination of aerobic exercise, resistance training and stretching/strengthening activities. It is also vital that they hydrate appropriately prior to, during, and after their workout sessions to keep blood glucose under control.

Studies have identified several barriers to exercise among those living with diabetes, including impaired maximum and submaximal exercise capacity, psychological and social barriers, and risk of hypoglycaemia. But even with all these hurdles in the way, people living with diabetes can still experience significant improvements in glycemic control, blood pressure control and lipid profile by engaging in regular physical activity. There exists great potential for a “definitional rupture”, that would break away from the narrow definitions used in epidemiological studies of physical activity and provide a broader, more inclusive definition that informs both academic disciplines that study it as well as public health policy formulation, intervention design and teaching at physical education and health educational settings.

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Cancer

Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells begin to multiply uncontrollably in any part of the body, becoming life threatening in its spread. Recent research suggests regular physical activity increases survival for those living with cancer. Light exercise may be safe but patients must be mindful of any associated risks such as type and intensity of activity they undertake; cancer itself may adversely impact exercise tolerance making it harder for people to get enough exercise.

Studies are increasingly showing the correlation between regular physical activity and lower rates of cancer as well as improved quality of life, and higher physical activity levels. Cancer patients can and should participate in various health-related activities regardless of their stage in treatment.

Current recommendations for general population fitness involve engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week; however, researchers are beginning to recognize that specific modalities, frequencies, durations and intensities of physical activity will have different effects on risk as well as quality of life during and post cancer treatments.

Research on cancer and physical activity has been conducted through both observational and experimental studies. Observational research, which relies on population data from epidemiologic cohorts, provides much of the evidence linking increased physical activity with reduced risks for certain cancers. Experimental research randomly assigning participants into either a control or intervention group that involves physical exercise is designed to eliminate confounding factors for direct comparison among groups.

Physical activity has long been recognized for its health benefits and risk reduction potential; yet it still poses a global public health challenge, contributing to four to five million deaths per year from inactivity. Many individuals do not meet current recommendations. There exists an opportunity to create a definitional rupture which moves the concept away from its insular definition within epidemiological and biomedical discourse towards more inclusive usage that informs policy statements, population interventions and teaching of physical education or health education settings.

Mental Health

Mental health is an integral component of overall well-being, including emotions and thinking skills like learning and communicating effectively. It plays an essential role in relationships, personal and social functioning and contributing to society; in turn it influences physical health in turn and vice versa – they both go hand in hand.

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Risk factors associated with mental health conditions can come from local, family and community settings as well as global events like economic downturns, disease outbreaks, human rights violations and natural disasters that have an enormous effect on individuals, families, communities and countries alike. A combination of risk and protective factors often determine mental wellbeing: including how people cope in stressful situations as well as their perception of themselves, their abilities and future goals.

Recent research indicates the benefits of regular physical activity on mental health are numerous, helping reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety while simultaneously building self-esteem, increasing cognitive functioning, and even helping prevent serious disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Unfortunately, many individuals fail to meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity. This could be because they lack access to safe and convenient places for exercise, are unable to fit it into their daily schedules or lack motivation to be physically active. Health care providers should support patients in making healthier lifestyle choices by encouraging physical activity – this advice and support may be especially important during COVID-19 pandemic when barriers may be greater than usual.

Physical activity seems to have numerous positive effects on mental health. This could be achieved through distraction and environment changes brought about by exercise, increased self-efficacy or release of endorphins that help boost mood; however, the evidence remains inconclusive and further studies need to be completed in this area.

WHO created the “Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030” to encourage more people to become physically active. This initiative requires an all-of-society response that recognizes all forms of physical activity across life span, from informal to structured forms.