What are the long-term effects of exercise on the body and mind?

Posted by for Strong Women

This is how sticking to your workout routine has a huge impact in the long term.

Good things come to those who wait, or so the saying goes, and that’s never more true than when we talk about fitness. It’s important to remember that how much we’re able to lift, how fast we can run and how far we can stretch isn’t going to change over night.

But while we reap many immediate benefits of exercise, the real magic happens when we are consistent with our training. Building a stronger and more resilient body and mind happens in the long-term – taking days, weeks, months or even years of training. The results are worth it though, and if you don’t believe it, we asked Strong Women ambassador Esmée Gummer to explain just some of the changes we see over time when we stick with exercise. 

Fighting disease

Studies show that regular exercise can prevent Alzheimer’s disease by up to a huge 45%, but until the reason for this brain boost was always a mystery. Now new research shows that it’s all all to do with a protein called Gpld1 which is excreted by the liver after exercise. The study then found that this protein improved the brain health in older mice, and the enzyme is also elevated in the blood of elderly humans who exercise regularly. 

Muscle growth

The day after exercise you can’t help but notice that you have aching muscles, known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). This happens because the muscles have been torn and damaged. “When you first start out exercising, doing five squats might cause you to ache. A few months on, you could do five squats and it doesn’t even affect you,” says Esmée. 

That’s because we experience muscular hypertrophy, aka muscle growth, and so it takes more weight, reps or intensity to damage the muscles. 

The cardiovascular system

But it’s not just the visible muscles that grow: all of those sessions where your heart is pumping hard will result in cardiac hypertrophy. This means that you’ll have a stronger pump which will push more blood around the body. Combined with an increase in oxygen carrying red blood cells, your heart rate will be able to lower. “Your heart just won’t have to work as hard to get blood to the organs and cells. That’s why you might find the things that used to make you really out of breath become easy after sustained periods of training,” explains Esmée. 

Woman tired from exercising
The long term effects of exercise: improved cardiovascular health

The breath

Your respiratory system will also undergo adaptation. Firstly, lung capacity increases, meaning you can hold more breath, and therefore oxygen, at once. That’s coupled with an increase in alveoli, the air sacs in the lungs, makes gas exchange easier. “In a basic way, all of this just means you’ll be fitter and find movement easier,” says Esmée.

Bone density

“Another huge benefit is increased bone density,” says Esmée. This is especially important for women as we hit peak bone density in our 20s. “Weak bones lead to severe problems, meaning you’ll be more at risk or breaks and fractures and also that you won’t be able to recover as quickly from any accidents.”

Better sleep

Exercise might get you feeling awake and alert, but studies show that daily exercise will actually help you sleep better. “The reason that happens is because your muscles grow in your sleep. If you’ve fatigued your muscles, your body will force you to sleep in order for them to grow and repair,” explains Esmée. “I know a lot of people overtrain thinking it will help them reach their goals. Actually, you should prioritise sleep, as that is the bit that makes your body change.” 

Mental health boost

The link between exercise and mental health is widely reported. In the short-term, that’s because of the endorphin boost, but studies prove that it also exercise can reduce mental health issues in the long run too, with some research suggesting it can have as much impact as medication.

It’s thought that the reason for this is because exercise can improve brain plasticity, or the capacity of the brain to develop new neural pathways and for new neurons to grow, which can impact thought process and mood.

“We can’t say exercise 100% reduces the feelings of anxiety and depression, but it definitely helps to reduce them,” says Esmée.

Women exercising
The long-term effects of exercise: how exercise helps your mental health

Mind-body connection

While you might roll your eyes when you hear yogis or fitness instructors tell you to ‘listen to your body’, exercising might make you understand what they mean a bit more as it can improve the mind-body connection. “Because you tune in to your body during workouts, you becoming more aware of how your body’s feeling, how you’re moving and what you’re doing outside of the gym,” says Esmée. “If you’re feeling a little tired or stressed, you will recognise that easier and be able to take steps to help.”

Improved relationships

It’s not just your relationship with your body that improves either, as exercise is believed to benefit relationships in the long-term too. While exercise has been shown sweating it out with another person has been shown to help the bond between the both of you, a 2001 study also shows that students who exercised generally had better relationships with their parents. “Eventually you project your frustration into your workouts instead of on your colleagues, friends or partner,” says Esmée. 

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