Exercise is undeniably good for us. Do it regularly enough and we look fresher, feel better and may even live longer too.
But even its proven ability to ward off beer bellies (the nation’s biggest passion killer) and heart disease (its biggest killer) – can’t persuade thousands of British men to get off the sofa and into the gym.
For too many of us, exercise means nothing more than an occasional kickabout or a brisk walk to the pub. Despite its huge benefits, regular exercise is something many of us choose to avoid.
And that really is a shame, because the latest research suggests that exercise is a true elixir. It’s great for those things we already know about – like cardiovascular fitness and burning calories – but it’s equally good at a whole range of things that aren’t so obvious.
Here are the seven hidden benefits of exercise, because if the prospect of a healthy heart can’t make you adopt the exercise habit, maybe the prospect of a healthier sex life can.
It attracts women
We’re all products of evolution, and when our ancestors lived in caves and defended themselves with sharpened sticks it was simply common sense for women to align themselves with the fittest, strongest men they could find. Those men would give better protection, and they’d catch better food.
Today we may have policemen, Tesco and an obesity crisis, but evolution works very slowly indeed. In other words – and as studies show – women are still most attracted to fit, strong men. It’s the shallowest reason to exercise ever, of course, but as we think you’ll agree, it’s a humdinger.
It slows ageing
Telomeres are strands of protein at the tips of chromosomes. They get shorter as we age, until they become so short they can no longer divide and the cells become inactive. That process is associated with getting old.
And guess what, you can slow that process with exercise. In one German study, researchers found that athletes had significantly less erosion in telomeres than non-athletes. The study concluded that physical activity has an anti-ageing effect at the cellular level. You can, in effect, run yourself young.
It’s a cold cure
Sick of winter colds and flu? Don’t stock up on paracetamol, stock up on the resolve to exercise. According to studies, people who exercise regularly heal from winter bugs 20-30% faster than those who don’t.
And research published this month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that being fit and active could cut your risk of catching a cold in the first place by a whopping 50%. That’s not a figure to be sneezed at, we think you’ll agree.
It’s an everything cure!
OK, here’s a lot more of that boring long-term health stuff, and if the well-known ability of exercise to ward off heart disease hasn’t persuaded you to join a gym or jump in a pool, maybe none of this will either. Or maybe, just maybe, the sheer weight of evidence will change your mind. Because exercise is really – really – good for you.
Here are the stats. Exercise can reduce the risk of stroke by 27%, diabetes by 50%, high-blood pressure by 40%, colon cancer by 60% and Alzheimer’s disease by 40%.
Those are real, life-lengthening benefits. And in the short term? People who walked briskly for 45 minutes, five days a week for 12-15 weeks reduced their number of sick days by 25-50%.
It eases your troubles
Worried about the cuts, or your career, or the X Factor final? If so, head down the gym and worry no more (or at least a lot less).
There are several ways that exercise eases anxiety. It releases feel good chemicals that can immediately lift your mood. It increases your body temperature, which can have a calming effect. And it encourages a number of behaviours that are emotionally beneficial.
For a start, the act of exercising is a distraction. Quite simply, when you do nothing, you brood. When you play football or go for a run, you don’t. Scoring a great goal or adding an extra half-mile to your route can also boost confidence. When your confidence is high problems are less daunting.
Finally, exercise gets you out of the house and in the company of others. Whether you play team sports or just exchange a friendly nod with other walkers or joggers, the act of socializing has been shown to help keep you happy.
It keeps you potent
A number of studies have shown that regular exercise can improve sexual performance in men. Specifically, exercise improves blood flow, and we all know which part of the anatomy that might benefit.
There’s also the simple matter of endurance. The fitter you are, the longer you can keep going, and that’s even more true if you’re trying out a few of the more testing positions. You’ll be more confident, too.
One study showed that men who work out viewed themselves as more sexually desirable and reported greater levels of sexual satisfaction than men who didn’t.
And if you do suffer from problems in that department, exercise can help. The European Association of Urology is unequivocal in its recommendation that exercise can improve erectile dysfunction.
It gets you promoted
Exercise on its own won’t earn you that promotion (unless you let the boss beat you at squash twice a week), but the increased productivity that exercise promotes might.
Companies like Coors (the brewers) and organisations like NASA have shown that exercise programs boost employee productivity. Workers who regularly work out are more alert during the last two hours of the day, at just the time when colleagues (and competitors for promotion) are starting to droop.
And because people who exercise more take fewer sick days, they soon get a reputation as committed, can-do employees.