10 Surprising Benefits of Exercise (Backed by Science)

fitness benefits
Written by Chris Macdonald

Although many of the benefits of exercise are well known — fat loss, reduced blood pressure, increased energy and strength — there is a plethora of less well-known advantages. We’ve compiled a list of 10 of the most surprising evidence-based benefits of exercise to spark your scientific curiosity or help get you motivated to increase your fitness level.

Brain health

It isn’t just the visible parts of your body that are benefiting from working out. While you might be quick to notice shredded abs or bulging biceps, you may be surprised to hear that your brain is also dramatically improving. Not only can exercise improve cognitive performance and prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s, it can promote brain growth. By contrast, a lack of exercise has been linked to brain shrinkage.


Getting enough sleep is right up there with exercise when it comes to optimum health. And the good news is, the two complement each other perfectly. Sleeping improves recovery from exercise, and exercise improves sleep. In fact, exercise improves all aspects of sleep: getting to sleep quicker, having a better quality of sleep and sleeping for longer. That’s a great deal if you consider that poor sleep has been linked to obesity, heart disease, stroke, hormone disruption, decreased brain function, decreased motor performance, DNA damage and even cancer.


Exercise can improve blood flow, increase antioxidants and induce skin cell adaptations, all of which will help delay the appearance of aging. The anti-aging properties are also more than skin deep. Exercise can dramatically improve the aging of your skeletal muscle. It can also promote what’s known as mitophagy, which is when your body selectively eliminates defective mitochondria. Deficits in mitophagy have been linked to the onset of diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Muscle memory

When it comes to muscle gains you may have heard various clichés such as “use it or lose it” and “easy come, easy go.” It’s the sentiment that if you stop training, you’ll lose your hard-earned gains. However, there is a silver lining — when you exercise, you develop what is known as muscle memory, meaning that it should be a lot quicker to get back to where you left off. There’s solid evidence showing this:  Research shows that exercise builds nuclei that remain even if your muscle mass has decreased, and it allows your muscles to grow back faster.


Anxiety is something we all suffer with from time to time, be it public speaking, a job interview or a first date. Anxiety can cause a lot of stress and it can prevent you from pursuing your goals. Thankfully, exercise has a powerful calming effect. While the distraction of exercise in itself can be calming, there is also something a little more sophisticated going on. A recent study showed that exercise can facilitate the release of GABA, an amino acid which acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system and helps to calm background brain activity.

Pain relief

They say no pain, no gain, but that can be a confusing message. Exercise might not be easy, but that is very different from pain. Exercise not only increases tolerance to pain, it is also a crucial part of rehabilitation and recovery. A number of recent studies have shown that exercise can help relieve chronic pain.


Exercise can dramatically improve your sex life for a whole host of reasons. It can improve your blood flow, confidence, stamina, strength and flexibility, all of which can positively improve bedroom activities. Workouts have also been shown to boost sex drive and pleasure. One study showed that even light exercise helped men reduce symptoms of erectile dysfunction, while another study showed that women have more frequent orgasms if they exercise.


In addition to protecting your brain from diseases and improving cognitive capacity, exercise can also improve your memory. One study demonstrated that even light exercise can increase the connectivity between the areas of the brain associated with recall. When observing mice, scientists noted that running increased the ability of mice to distinguish between familiar and new objects. And in a human study, it was shown that exercise helps both short-term and long-term memory.


Often in the pursuit of human optimization, happiness can be an afterthought. But fortunately, exercise also helps to put a big smile on your face. In a recent review, it was revealed that across 15 relevant studies, all of them reported a strong correlation between physical activity and happiness. In one study, practicing yoga for just 10 weeks dramatically improved the mental health of inmates. And another study found that even 10 minutes of exercise per week can significantly increase levels of happiness.

Life longevity

With what we have seen thus far, perhaps it’s no surprise that exercise also helps you live longer. A study of around 8,000 adults showed that if you replace 30 minutes of sitting with some form of physical activity, you can cut the risk of early death by 35 percent. Another study found that mortality is significantly higher among those with low muscle strength. It has even been shown that exercise can kill cancerous cells as effectively as chemotherapy.

So there you have it — something that can help you gain strength, lose fat, increase energy, lower blood pressure, protect your brain, keep you young, reduce anxiety, help you sleep, relieve pain, improve your sex life, boost your memory, improve your mood and even extend your life. So how much for this miracle drug? Nothing. And it is available to all. You just have to remember to take it.

About the author

Chris Macdonald

Chris Macdonald is a scientist and author. As a scientist, Chris’s work
deciphers why people do harmful things — not only to others or the
environment but also to themselves. And as an author, Chris aims to
facilitate optimal health and sustainability, although he’ll often write a
more lighthearted piece if it’ll put a smile on someone’s face. To see
Chris’s work, visit

Health JournalSubscribe to our Thursday “Healthy Reads!”