The Long and Short Term Benefits of Being Physically Active

The world is a complex place and there aren’t many “magic bullet” solutions for anything. In the world of public health and disease prevention, however, physical activity may be the next best thing.

The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently published their report on physical activity, its effects, and its promotion. This 2018 report serves as an update to, and expansion of, a similar report published ten years before, in 2008.

That 2008 report found strong evidence that physical activity links with multiple and far-reaching health benefits. The 2018 update not only reconfirms these findings, but expands on them dramatically.

When we talk about physical activity, disease prevention immediately comes to mind. And, indeed, physical activity plays a crucial role in preventing many chronic diseases.

Most obviously, physical activity helps to prevent obesity and thus obesity-related issues like diabetes and hypertension. The 2008 committee also found that physical activity helps to prevent breast and colon cancers. The 2018 report reconfirms these findings but expands that list to also include lung, kidney, bladder, stomach, esophageal, and endometrial cancers.

Also reconfirmed in the 2018 findings were links between physical activity and the prevention of both gestational diabetes and postpartum depression among pregnant women. The preventative link was also found in issues that affect older adults such as dementia and reduced risk of falls.

Not as widely-known but no less important, however, are the short-term — and, in fact, often immediate — benefits of physical activity.

Physical activity improves sleep, reducing the time needed to get to sleep and promoting deeper, more effective sleep. Other benefits include improved cognition, reduced stress, and improved mood. Physical activity has been found not only to reduce clinical depression and its symptoms, but also to improve mood for people with no clinical depression. In other words, physical activity simply makes people feel better.

And the amazing part? These tangible benefits — aside from all disease prevention and lifelong concerns — begin to occur the same day as the physical activity.

The 2018 report reconfirms a target range of 150–300 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week. An interesting note in this most recent report, however, mentions that physical activity in lesser amounts still yields both immediate and long-term health benefits.

This insight can be an important motivational point for many, normally sedentary individuals. One doesn’t need to spend an hour at the gym three times a week for it to “count” — any activity is better than none, especially if that’s what it takes to get any given person started down the road toward better health.

Also new in the 2018 report are findings that initiatives to promote physical activity do indeed work.

In addition to various types of interventions for individuals, school-based initiatives that promote physical activity — especially multi-component initiatives with community involvement — can have a profound impact on physical activity levels among young people.

Environmental and policy changes also play a key role in increasing physical activity for the most common sense reason imaginable — improving access to the means and places where physical activity can occur naturally leads to more people getting up and moving.

For more information, view the full report.