It’s not all about physically looking young – it’s about feeling youthful and rejuvenated. (Photo: Getty Images)
The powers of a steady fitness routine are impressive: regular exercise can help you build stronger muscles, stave off chronic illnesses, and make your clothes fit a whole lot better. But there’s another benefit of physical activity that deserves a shout-out: the way even moderate amounts seem to shave years off your age, no matter how many birthdays you’ve actually celebrated. Of course, you can’t change your chronological age, but exercise can improve your health to the point where you look and feel younger than you are, says Frank Frisch, PhD, director of kinesiology at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. Behold the physical and mental effects a sweat session can have on your brain and body. Just reading this list will motivate you to never blow off a gym session again.
Exercise gives you more vim and vigor
A workout is like nature’s energy drink, firing up your brain and body so you feel more alert and alive. “Exercise puts your body in a state of arousal, which translates into more vitality and a greater sense of well being,” says Frisch. “Daily tasks become less strenuous and require less exertion.” It’s the kind of pep in your step that makes you feel like you’ve peeled off a decade or two.
Exercise jumpstarts your sex drive
A sweat session improves blood flow all over your body, including below the belt, and the extra blood surge makes you feel more responsive and increasing arousal, says Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale School of Medicine. Exercise also powers your sex drive in a psychological way. “Working out brings on more confidence about your appearance and body, and that puts you in a sexier mindset,” says Dr. Minkin. And don’t forget the all-over energy surge exercise offers, which gives you extra fuel so you can rock the sheets.
Exercise keeps your skin soft and glowing
A dewy sheen on your cheeks thanks to all the sweat dripping off your forehead may not be the only way fitness keeps your skin young. Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario studied a small group of adults between ages 20 and 84. The frequent exercisers who were over age 40 had skin that resembled the more supple, elastic skin of people in their 20s and 30s. The difference had nothing to do with sun exposure (which would age your skin faster if you didn’t wear sunscreen), reported the research team; they theorized that exercise creates body substances that help slow aging in skin, though they say more research is needed to learn how exercise changes skin composition.
Exercise improves your posture
Thanks to muscle loss and bone density changes, your posture takes a hit as you age. Counteract this with strength training, which builds muscle and bone health, especially in your core and along your spine, so you naturally stand taller and shave years off your appearance, says Amie Hoff, personal trainer and founder of Hoff Fitness in New York City. Working out also makes you feel more psychologically powerful, so you naturally stop slouching and straighten up, she adds.
Exercise improves your flexibility
Aging doesn’t just make your opinions more inflexible—it makes your muscles and joints more fixed in place as well, leaving you feeling stiff and rickety. Regular workouts, especially stretching-oriented routines such as yoga and Pilates, keep you loose and bendy, says Hoff. “If cardio workouts are your preference, you can still boost your flexibility by warming up and cooling down with foam roller exercises,” she suggests. This foam fitness tool gets rid of the knots that form in muscle, reducing rigidity.
Related: 4 Fat-Blasting Jumping Exercises
Exercise boosts your mood
You’ve heard of runner’s high, and that blissful mood boost can happen during any sweat-inducing cardio workout. It seems to come down to endorphins: the body chemicals your system cranks out when you’re active. “Endorphins are like natural opiates,” says Eric Sternlicht, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at Chapman University. Some evidence shows that gym sessions can trigger changes in other neurotransmitters linked to pleasurable feelings, such as dopamine. And the confidence kick you get helps you feel happier too.
Exercise helps you sleep soundly
Restful sleep is like a fountain of youth, and exercise helps you achieve it. “Research shows that regular exercisers fall asleep more easily and are more likely to experience deep REM sleep,” says Frisch. A heart-pumping workout tires you out, sure, but there’s more to it than that. Sleeping well helps all the systems in your body function optimally, so you’re less likely to feel stressed and then toss and turn all night. A recent study bears this out, finding that getting at least 150 minutes of exercise per week improved sleep quality by 65%.
Exercise keeps your metabolism high
Metabolism naturally slows as you age, so it’s harder to avoid pound creepage as the years pass. Luckily scheduling regular workout sessions helps you increase the total number of calories you burn, helping you maintain a steady, healthy weight. You’ll torch more calories if you add in resistance training to your routine at least a few times a week, since working out with free weights or doing bodyweight exercises helps build muscle mass. “The more muscle you have, the higher your calorie burn is,” says Sternlicht. “And it stays higher all day long, even after you’ve stopped exercising.”
Exercise slows cell aging
Exercise doesn’t just make you feel younger—it may actually turn off the aging process in your chromosomes. It has to do with telomeres, the caps at the end of chromosomes that control aging. Telomeres become shorter as you get older, and longer telomeres are associated with longevity. Recent studies have found a link between regular exercise and the lengthening of the telomeres, suggesting that exercise can slow the clock so you live longer. “Though exercise won’t guarantee you a long life, it can greatly improve your odds,” says Frisch.
Exercise reduces belly fat
As you creep into middle age, fat that used to primarily land on your hips and thighs starts to increasingly show up along your belly; this is especially true after menopause. Unlike fat on other body areas, this visceral fat, as it’s known, can increase your risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. It’s stubborn, but regular cardio sessions appear to reduce or erase it. A 2011 Duke University study found that cardio workouts can lead to more belly fat loss than strength training workouts or a combo of strength training and cardio.
Exercise relieves stress
A long outdoor run or scenic hike can distract you from anxiety and worries. But there may be a physiological reason exercise lowers stress levels. “The endorphin release prompted by a workout has a relaxing effect and reduces anxiety,” says Zonoozi. Also, more meditative forms of exercise, such as yoga or Tai Chi, encourage mindfulness along with moving your body. Staying in the moment so you focus on your breathing and heart rate make it a lot harder to mentally freak out about a stressful work project or that fight you had last night with a friend.
Exercise enhances your memory
As years pass, it’s normal to become forgetful. But research suggests that you can fight brain fog with fitness. Researchers writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2014 found that regular aerobic exercise seems to increase the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory. Previous research has also linked exercise to sharper cognitive skills. If you’re experiencing more senior moments these days, dial them back by getting on the treadmill.
Exercise makes your heart more efficient
Like all muscles, your heart gets weak and flabby with inactivity. As a result, it has to work harder to pump blood throughout your body, racking up more stress and leaving you feeling easily fatigued and winded. Good thing even moderately intense exercise (like a brisk 30-minute walk) can make your heart stronger, so it pumps oxygen-rich blood more efficiently through your system, resulting in less strain, says Rhonda Zonoozi, exercise physiologist and certified health and wellness coach at the Sun Health Center for Health and Wellbeing in Arizona.
Exercise protects you from heart disease
Exercise’s heart-healthy benefits don’t stop there. Regular workouts also reduce your risk of cardio problems that tend to crop up with age, such as high blood pressure and high levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood that can block or harden arteries. Both are big-time contributors to heart disease, the number one killer of men and women, according to the CDC. “Exercise also improves levels of HDL, or good cholesterol, the kind that protects your heart from cardiovascular disease,” says Zonoozi.
Exercise improves your blood flow
As you age, it’s not only joints that can get stiff—the blood vessels in your body can lose their flexibility. This makes it harder for them to expand and contract as needed to deliver oxygen-rich blood to parts of the body that need it the most (like the brain, heart, and muscles.) And stiffer arteries can raise your blood pressure, meaning your heart has to work harder to pump blood through them. Exercise can lower blood pressure and improve circulation, and some research suggests that even simple stretching—think yoga, Pilates, or any stretching moves—can help boost flexibility of blood vessels.
By Esther Crain
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