The Effects of Exercise on Health

Updated: Nov 17

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Exercise for health…we all know it’s important but time and again nowadays we see the message pushed that exercise is either unimportant or pales in significance when compared to diet. Notwithstanding diet is one of, if not the biggest effector of health outcomes, we can never disconnect it from the myriad of bidirectional relationships of health that exist between mindfulness, sleep, stress, diet, and movement, not to mention passion, creativity, purpose, and play.

It is clear that exercise improves both aerobic and anaerobic fitness and overall health and health-related quality of life,1 and that the greatest improvements in health are seen in those starting at a poorer level of health or condition.1 Exercise benefits cardiorespiratory fitness, strength, body composition, and health outcomes across all age ranges.2 Exercise also improves productivity. In a study of Polish white-collar workers, meeting health-related physical activity guidelines resulted in an almost doubling of work ability.3

The greatest improvements in health are seen in those starting at a poorer level of health

Unfortunately, only 20-30% of people achieve the minimum recommended two resistance training sessions per week, and less than 60% of people achieve aerobic exercise minimum guidelines.4-6 Research from Portugal and Australia suggests that a majority of people are not even aware of what the physical activity guidelines are.6, 7

On a positive note though, it appears (from European research) that physical inactivity may be declining overall, but there are discrepancies between countries, and women are more likely to be physically inactive.8

only 20-30% of people achieve the minimum recommended two resistance training sessions per week

In addition to the beneficial effects of exercise on cardiovascular health, metabolic health and more [see upcoming CARR articles], reviews of the research published in the last ten years also show benefits for a range of health conditions including:


Exercise is safe for people with cancer and can improve strength, overall physical function and activity, and cognitive function. 9-11 The most effective exercise is likely to be of greater intensity. High-intensity interval training has been demonstrated to improve VO2max (a measure of aerobic fitness), strength, and body composition more than continuous aerobic exercise.12

Eye health

Exercise reduces intra-ocular pressure and improves glaucoma. However, some activities that can worsen pressure are likely to be dangerous for people with glaucoma (i.e. scuba diving, bungee jumping, and swimming with eye-goggles).13


The combination of aerobic and resistance training improves aerobic capacity and overall health and quality of life more than yoga, aerobic exercise, or resistance training alone in people with HIV.14

Hormonal health

Walking interventions of many types improve symptoms associated with menopause.15

Kidney disease

In people with kidney disease undergoing dialysis, combined aerobic and resistance training improves cardiorespiratory fitness, reduces symptoms of depression, and improves quality of life (particularly ‘vitality’ and physical function). Interestingly, aerobic exercise alone was not significantly associated with improvements in aerobic capacity and quality of life improvement.16


Exercise results in improved mental and physical health in pregnant women.17 While conclusions vary, most studies support exercise for helping to facilitate post-pregnancy weight loss and improve post-natal depression.18, 19 The most effective methods for improving post-natal depression appear to be exercise that is supervised (either one-on-one or group exercise), structured, and includes psychosocial support.18

Aerobic exercise for 35–90 minutes 3–4 times per week during pregnancy can be safely performed by most women during pregnancy and is associated with a significantly lower incidence of caesarean delivery and gestational diabetes and hypertensive disorders.20, 21

Respiratory illness

Supervised exercise reduces hospital admissions and the exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.22 Exercise also improves the quality of life and cardiovascular fitness in children with asthma and cystic fibrosis.23

Sexual function

Even modest increases in exercise activity improve sexual function, probably as a result of improved overall health.24


1. Nguyen TM, Nguyen VH, Kim JH. Physical Exercise and Health-Related Quality of Life in Office Workers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021;18(7):3791.

2. García-Hermoso A, Alonso-Martinez AM, Ramírez-Vélez R, Izquierdo M. Effects of Exercise Intervention on Health-Related Physical Fitness and Blood Pressure in Preschool Children: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Sports Medicine. 2020;50(1):187-203.

3. Nawrocka A, Garbaciak W, Cholewa J, Mynarski W. The relationship between meeting of recommendations on physical activity for health and perceived work ability among white-collar workers. European Journal of Sport Science. 2018;18(3):415-22.

4. Shakespear-Druery J, De Cocker K, Biddle SJH, Gavilán-Carrera B, Segura-Jiménez V, Bennie J. Assessment of muscle-strengthening exercise in public health surveillance for adults: A systematic review. Preventive Medicine. 2021;148:106566.

5. Song M, Nam S, Buss J, Lee S-J. Assessing the prevalence of meeting physical activity recommendations among U.S. healthcare workers: Data from the 2015 National Health Interview Survey. Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health. 2020;75(7):422-30.

6. Berry NM, Nolan R, Dollman J. Associations of awareness of physical activity recommendations for health and self-reported physical activity behaviours among adult South Australians. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 2016;19(10):837-42.

7. Martins J, Cabral M, Elias C, Nelas R, Sarmento H, Marques A, et al. Physical activity recommendations for health: knowledge and perceptions among college students. Retos: nuevas tendencias en educación física, deporte y recreación. 2019(36):290-6.

8. Mayo X, del Villar F, Iglesias-Soler E, Liguori G, Mann S, Jimenez A. A retrospective analysis of policy development on compliance with World Health Organization’s physical activity recommendations between 2002 and 2005 in European Union adults: closing the gap between research and policy. BMC Public Health. 2018;18(1):1081.

9. Wanchai A, Armer JM. Effects of weight-lifting or resistance exercise on breast cancer-related lymphedema: A systematic review. International Journal of Nursing Sciences. 2019;6(1):92-8.

10. Mikkelsen MK, Juhl CB, Lund CM, Jarden M, Vinther A, Nielsen DL. The effect of exercise-based interventions on health-related quality of life and physical function in older patients with cancer receiving medical antineoplastic treatments: a systematic review. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity. 2020;17(1):18.

11. Rammant E, Decaestecker K, Bultijnck  R, Sundahl N, Ost P, Pauwels NS, et al. A systematic review of exercise and psychosocial rehabilitation interventions to improve health-related outcomes in patients with bladder cancer undergoing radical cystectomy. Clinical Rehabilitation. 2018;32(5):594-606.

12. Toohey K, Pumpa K, McKune A, Cooke J, Semple S. High-intensity exercise interventions in cancer survivors: a systematic review exploring the impact on health outcomes. Journal of Cancer Research and Clinical Oncology. 2018;144(1):1-12.

13. Zhu MM, Lai JSM, Choy BNK, Shum JWH, Lo ACY, Ng ALK, et al. Physical exercise and glaucoma: a review on the roles of physical exercise on intraocular pressure control, ocular blood flow regulation, neuroprotection and glaucoma-related mental health. Acta Ophthalmologica. 2018;96(6):e676-e91.

14. Neto MG, Saquetto MB, Alves IG, Martinez BP, Vieira JPB, Brites C. Effects of Exercise Interventions on Aerobic Capacity and Health-Related Quality of Life in People Living With Hiv/Aids: Systematic Review and Network Meta-Analysis. Physical Therapy. 2021.

15. Sydora BC, Turner C, Malley A, Davenport M, Yuksel N, Shandro T, et al. Can walking exercise programs improve health for women in menopause transition and postmenopausal? Findings from a scoping review. Menopause. 2020;27(8):952-63.

16. Gomes Neto M, de Lacerda FFR, Lopes AA, Martinez BP, Saquetto MB. Intradialytic exercise training modalities on physical functioning and health-related quality of life in patients undergoing maintenance hemodialysis: systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Rehabilitation. 2018;32(9):1189-202.

17. Kesim Sİ, Taştekin A, Özaydın T. Effect of Exercise on the Mental Health of Pregnant Women: a Systematic Review. Spor Hekimligi Dergisi/Turkish Journal of Sports Medicine. 2019;54(4).

18. Saligheh M, Hackett D, Boyce P, Cobley S. Can exercise or physical activity help improve postnatal depression and weight loss? A systematic review. Archives of Women’s Mental Health. 2017;20(5):595-611.

19. Elliott-sale KJ, Barnett CT, Sale C. Systematic review of randomised controlled trials on exercise interventions for weight management during pregnancy and up to one year postpartum among normal weight, overweight and obese women. Pregnancy Hypertension: An International Journal of Women’s Cardiovascular Health. 2014;4(3):234.

20. Di Mascio D, Magro-Malosso ER, Saccone G, Marhefka GD, Berghella V. Exercise during pregnancy in normal-weight women and risk of preterm birth: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2016;215(5):561-71.

21. Ming W-K, Ding W, Zhang CJP, Zhong L, Long Y, Li Z, et al. The effect of exercise during pregnancy on gestational diabetes mellitus in normal-weight women: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. 2018;18(1):440.

22. Jenkins AR, Gowler H, Curtis F, Holden NS, Bridle C, Jones AW. Efficacy of supervised maintenance exercise following pulmonary rehabilitation on health care use: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Chron Obstruct Pulmon Dis. 2018;13:257-73.

23. Joschtel B, Gomersall SR, Tweedy S, Petsky H, Chang AB, Trost SG. Effects of exercise training on physical and psychosocial health in children with chronic respiratory disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. 2018;4(1):e000409.

24. Jiannine LM, Reio Jr. TG. The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Exercise on Sexual Functioning: A Literature Review for Adult Health Education Professionals. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. 2018;30(2):3-22.

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