4 unexpected benefits of exercise

If you exercise regularly, you’ll be glad to know you’ve been getting more benefits than you may have realized. Find out about four benefits that have nothing to do with weight

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fit happy woman exercise

Even more reason to exercise

What's your motivation for exercising? If you're like most, you're probably driven to tone up and keep the number on the scale from creeping up. But exercise has benefits that go well beyond a fit physique. From warding off illness to increased concentration at work, read on to find out about four benefits of exercise you'd have never expected.

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cold flu sick

1. You'll be better at fighting illness

Several studies have shown that regular exercise has an immune-boosting effect, according to Dr. Julia Alleyne, medical director of Sport Centre for Advanced Research and Education at Women's College Hospital, and chief medical officer for the Canadian Olympic team. "Exercise can boost the body's ability to either cope with or prevent illness," she says. That means not only are those who regularly exercise less likely to get sick, but when they do fall ill, symptoms generally don't last as long and aren't as severe as their couch potato counterparts. To get this immune boost, Dr. Alleyne recommends following the current Canadian guidelines on physical exercise: 150 minutes a week or 30 minutes on most days of the week.

One caveat to keep in mind, however, is that while regular exercise helps us fight off infections, too much exercise can weaken our defences. In a study Dr. Alleyne led, individuals with a Body Mass Index (BMI) under 20 who were training for more than 15 hours a week had an increased risk of adverse immune effects. How much exercise is too much will depend on the individual, nutrition and recovery time, explains Dr. Alleyne. The message for those training for a sport event or marathon? Listen to your body, and don't push it on the days you're feeling fatigued.

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running treadmill

2. You'll improve cell function

Even our cells have to routinely clean house in order to function optimally. Bacteria, broken protein molecules, old mitochondria and other debris can build up in our cells, cause them to malfunction or die.  Fortunately, cells contain membranes that eat up cellular waste in a process known as "autophagy".

In a January study published in Nature, researchers found that when mice ran, they produced more membranes within their cells, suggesting that exercise was putting the cell-cleaning process in overdrive. According to the researchers, more efficient autophagy means cells function better all around. Animal studies have linked autophagy to a reduced risk of cancer, infections, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders.

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happy worker

3. You'll improve your concentration and alertness

Do you notice it's easier to get in the zone at work if you've exercised in the morning? You're not alone. "There's some scientific evidence, especially if you're in a sedentary job for most of the day, that if you go out and exercise, you will have greater concentration," says Dr. Alleyne.

Research on the relationship between exercise and brain function have led several North American schools to implement cardio exercise programs in an effort to improve school kids' behaviour and performance. At Naperville Central High School in Illinois, aerobic cardio in the morning and movement "breaks" throughout the day provided some benefit to children diagnosed with ADHD. (Some were even able to go off medication.)

The good news is you don't have to do a boot camp class to get this benefit. If you're feeling fatigued, a brisk 15-minute walk can do wonders for energy and alertness, says to Dr. Alleyne.

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sex love couple

5. Your sex life will get a boost

A 2010 study in the International Journal of Urogynecology correlated women's pelvic strength with a questionnaire about sexual function and satisfaction. Out of 176 women who took part in the study, the 41 percent with strong pelvic floor muscles were doubly as satisfied as those with weak pelvic muscles, according to questionnaire results.

What do pelvic muscles have to do with it? As the researchers explain, science has already shown that the female orgasm happens when the pelvic floor muscles "rise to a new maximum tension which is maintained momentarily and then followed by instantaneous release of all tension."

Men who exercise regularly may also benefit from an improved sex life. A 2011 study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine that grouped 78 men according to their exercise levels found "a trend toward more dysfunction for the sedentary group."

Related:
The benefits of hot yoga
Exercise your way to better sex
Why it's important for women to build muscle