The benefits of exercise

Dr Clare Fernandes is an Occupational Medicine Physician for Medigold and Interim Chief Medical Officer at the BBC. In this article, she looks at the important role that exercise plays in promoting both physical and mental health, as well as how you can maintain levels in the current situation.

Positive Lifestyle Cycle graphic - sleep, eat, exercise, repeat

Positive Lifestyle Cycle graphic - sleep, eat, exercise, repeat

In general, physical health comprises of exercise, diet and lifestyle, sleep and managing health conditions. Exercise is of particular importance, as this is likely to have been most impacted on during the lock down. Our average step count is down by 50% through not commuting to work, moving around offices and by generally not leaving our houses as much as we might normally do.

The benefits of this ‘passive exercise’ we do in our daily lives is not being realised, either physically or consciously. Given the increased burden of current working patterns and demands, as well as the inherent mental strain placed on us in general at times like these, exercise has never been more important – not just physically, but also mentally.


The physical benefits

You don’t need to do a 60 minute workout - even some gentle stretching results in these benefits:

  • Maintaining physical resilience - Generally speaking, our body’s response to fight the virus comes through our immune system. The immune system ranges from physical barriers such as the integrity of our skin to our antibodies, which adapt to and fight off infections.
  • Better circulation - To get the blood and immune cells around the body to where they are needed for regeneration and repair, but also to get cell waste products away from cells and eliminated from the body.
  • Stronger bones and joints - Exercise helps keep the skeleton in optimum position by improving the posture, resulting in fewer aches and pains and better balance.
  • Cortisol regulation – Managing this stress hormone helps to maintain essential functions and regulation.
  • Weight regulation - Maintaining a healthy weight means less work for the lungs and heart when undertaking daily activities.
  • Better sleep – This is really important for cell repair, which helps maintain the integrity of our immune system and general health of the body.


The mental health benefits

Research from previous epidemics has shown that quarantine can result in high levels of psychological distress, with a number of factors making physical exercise really important:

  • For control - To control what we can is an important resilience technique, especially in more stressful situations.
  • For resilience - Exercise can be used in coping strategies when addressing mental health problems.
  • For a ‘physiological feel good’ - Exercise releases endorphins, a natural chemical that makes you feel good.
  • Reduced cortisol release - Cortisol is a naturally occurring chemical that is released in the stress response and constitutes some of the symptoms experienced.
  • Reduces mental fatigue – Making you more alert and productive.
  • Improves sleep - Better sleep reduces poor mental health and exacerbations of poor mental health.
  • For mental health conditions - Exercise is part of the evidenced based treatment for depression and anxiety.

What constitutes exercise?

Organisations such as Physical Health England (PHE) advise the following:

  • Adults should do some type of physical activity every day.
  • Any type of activity is good for you.
  • The more you do the better.
  • Even 10 minutes at a time shows benefits.
  • The ideal is 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise or 75 of vigorous exercise, or a mix.
  • Strength and flexibility training should be undertaken at least twice a week.
  • Moderate intensity activity: Will raise your heart rate, and make you breathe faster and feel warmer. One way to tell if you're working at a moderate intensity level is if you can still talk, but not sing.
  • Vigorous intensity activity: Makes you breathe hard and fast. If you're working at this level, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for breath.

Strength and flexibility exercises are also important, particularly for those who cannot do the above and particularly due to space constraints, social distancing and quarantine. They can be adapted from normal home activities which can be important for those short on time and needing to multitask to include exercise in their day, but can also be adapted to become intensive exercise.

Perhaps what you don’t think of as exercise, but qualify as strength exercises include:

  • carrying heavy shopping bags
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Pilates
  • lifting weights
  • working with resistance bands
  • doing exercises that use your own body weight, such as push-ups and sit-ups
  • heavy gardening, such as digging and shovelling
  • wheeling a wheelchair
  • lifting and carrying children

To get health benefits from strength exercises, you should do them to the point where you need a short rest before repeating the activity.


How should I go about this?

Start small and choose for your circumstances. What will benefit you the most? What do you like to do?

Then make a plan to help keep the effort you make sustainable. Adapt to the day/ or your situation. For example, if you are feeling:

Confined to the desk? Neck/back/shoulder exercises or desk exercises may be appropriate

Stressed? Try yoga.

Sore? Try Yoga or Pilates.

Lazy? Perhaps sofa stretches.

Busy? Take a rain check or work some exercise into housework or childcare.

Top Tips graphic

Top Tips graphic

How to keep going

  1. Remember why you started - Taking the first step is always the hardest part. Find a way to tap into that motivation you felt at the beginning of the year and use it to your advantage—even when January is long gone and most have given up on their resolutions.
  2. Make a schedule / plan - It’s beneficial to create a schedule. Blocking out time for exercise will force you to stay on track and remind you to make it a priority instead of putting it on the backburner when other work starts piling up. See the resources below for more info.
  3. Set goals - It may seem obvious, but setting goals for yourself is one way to guarantee you’re constantly reaching for something. Aim to work out a certain number of times a week or set a certain number of miles you want to run at one time. Your goal shouldn’t be your only motivation, but it can help keep you going.
  4. Download a fitness app - Work-out buddies outside of the household are obviously not possible at present.  You could try the Asana Rebel App and tap into your inner yogi, or check out the 7 Minute Workout app. The more fun you have exercising, the more likely you are to stick with it.
  5. Reward yourself - Celebrate your wins, even if they’re small. If you’ve earned it then you’re more likely to remember those wins the next time you’re struggling to keep going.
  6. Change and adapt - You can also try mixing things up and listen to podcasts or audiobooks to keep your interest when music isn’t enough anymore. Another trick? Try a new exercise. If you’ve only ever done cardio, try lifting weights. If you’ve always lifted, maybe try a bike ride, jog, or another activity that stretches you in a new way.
  7. Track your progress - It’s difficult to see changes in yourself over time, which is why tracking your progress is beneficial. Keep track of your times or personal bests and fitness wins. Before long, you’ll be able to look back and see just how far you’ve come. Committing to fitness has physical and mental health benefits. At the end of the day, you’re doing something for you that will make you feel better, and that’s what’s most important.
  8. Work with others - Work with those in your household or remotely challenge friends and colleagues to work together on something physical, e.g. an abs challenge.


Other considerations

There are particular groups of people for whom exercise helps mitigate symptoms / ill-health. The reduction in physical lifestyle would prove more challenging to their health, because exercise has a direct or indirect therapeutic benefit, or for other reasons. Those affected can seek further help on this topic from their healthcare team if need be.

This list includes, but is not exclusive to those with:

  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Chronic depression
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Arthritis
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder



1. Sources of a variety of different exercises

  • NHS Fitness Studio
  • Quarantrain - set up by Nottingham University specifically for lockdown, has a variety of options and languages and is recommended by the British Society of Exercise Medicine


2. Make plans to help with sustainability


3. Live scheduled training to help you feel part of a community, but also pre-recorded sessions to work around you in a variety of online and app formats:


4. At desk exercises and exercises that will help with the effects of prolonged desk work:


5. Considerations for those who are differently abled:

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