Do You Really Need to Exercise Every Day?

We consulted scientific studies to find out. The collective response: Movement yields regenerative benefits for the body, brain, and overall well-being.

July 7, 2024
ILLUSTRATION BY ELENABS, VIA GETTY IMAGES

You may be a dapper dresser and dreamy dancer, but you’re no Jack Skellington. You need muscle to function; all-bones Jack needed only Tim Burton’s stop-motion methodology. Indeed, motion (sans “stop-”) helps you thrive. 

Some 2,500 years ago, Pythagoras advocated for regular exercise in the interest of one’s health. Today’s scientists back him up. In a study published in 2021 by Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, U.S. adults with a mean age of 45 spent 9.5 hours a day sitting. Leisure time accounted for 47 percent of those hours. Adults spent 82 percent of that leisure time staring into computer and television screens.

Dr. Rajiv Tailor, a specialist in sports medicine at Eisenhower Health, points to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommending 30 minutes per day of moderate exercise five days a week.

“A lot of people are disincentivized to do that,” he says, adding that breaking exercise into small increments may encourage more people to literally step away from chairs.

A 2023 study at Columbia University in New York concluded that five minutes of walking every half hour throughout the day significantly improves blood pressure, blood sugar levels, fatigue, and mood.

Movement increases blood flow to organs throughout the body, including the brain. A 2021 Harvard Health article explains that cardio activity catalyzes the brain-derived “neurotrophic factor molecule” that helps repair brain cells and make new ones. According to one referenced study, the hormone irisin (produced by muscles during exercise) protects mice against brain inflammation and might counter effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

“A lot of [medical] conditions are related to a loss of function that happens generally with age,” Tailor says. “A lack of exercise can contribute to changes in the brain that affect your coordination, balance, and muscle firing — the way we function.”

Frank Pozda, rehab manager at Desert Regional Medical Center, advocates for regular, frequent walks and additionally promotes the therapeutic benefits of aquatic exercise, which strengthens muscles without straining joints.

“In my career as an occupational therapist, I have seen people who live an active lifestyle prior to an injury recover much faster than a person who lives a sedentary lifestyle,” he says.

Pozda endorses using resistance bands for upper- and lower-body muscles.

ILLUSTRATION BY KOTRYNA ZUKAUSKAITE

Don’t overlook grip strength, which is particularly important in maintaining mobility and independence as you age. You can find an array of hand-grip products in brick-and-mortar stores and online or, as Pozda suggests, a spongy ball that offers resistance when you squeeze it will do just fine. Within the past 10 years, grip strength has become increasingly recognized as a biomarker for age-related health and is used to diagnose sarcopenia.

Translated from Greek, “sarcopenia” means a lack of flesh, but in medicine, it refers to age-related loss of muscle. Sources vary when it comes to the degree to which muscle mass decreases, but it generally begins as early as age 40 and accelerates each year. Sources do agree that a combination of good nutrition and resistance and strength training can reverse sarcopenia.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association issued a position statement on resistance training in 2019. It includes the following:

“Current research has demonstrated that countering muscle disuse through resistance training is a powerful intervention to combat muscle strength loss, muscle mass loss (sarcopenia), physiological vulnerability (frailty), and their debilitating consequences on physical conditioning, mobility, independence, chronic disease management, psychological well-being, and quality of life.

“Moreover, a large body of evidence links weakness to a host of negative age-related health outcomes, including diabetes, disability, cognitive decline, osteoporosis, and early all-cause mortality.”

The position statement relies on strong evidence that resistance training can “mitigate the effects of aging on neuromuscular [cognitive] function” and affirms that “combined resistance and aerobic training interventions demonstrated greater benefits on cognitive function than those that only included aerobic training.”

A 2015 report in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise further notes that “aerobic exercise is known to be a potent regulator of skeletal muscle oxidative capacity, where mitochondrial density and function are elevated in both animals and humans acclimated to endurance exercise.”

Like the rest of your body’s components, skeletal muscles rely on the health of the mitochondria in cells. Just as the aging process compromises the integrity of organs and tissues elsewhere, it reduces mitochondrial density and function in skeletal muscles.

Most muscles in the human body are skeletal muscles and comprise 30 to 40 percent of total body mass. They hold joints in place so that you can move yourself and objects that you want to pick up and set down. They also maintain body temperature and store nutrients. Some skeletal muscles keep you alive by making it possible to inhale, exhale, chew, and swallow.

“If you do nothing to slow the process [of muscle loss], eventually you are going to find it difficult to do normal things,” Tailor says. “It is important to maintain your muscles, which help your bone health and density.” He offers this good news: “If you have not been using your muscles, you can train them again.”

A 2023 report from Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging at Colorado State University notes that recent research with mice suggests that exercise can “reprogram” cells to a younger state. The report states that a mere 15 percent of individuals 65 years and older meet CDC exercise guidelines.

“Movement is function,” Tailor says. “Train yourself mentally to adopt this [concept] for the rest of your life. It is best to start young, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start at 80. Work with your healthcare team to optimize what you do. The key fact is you should be active.

challenge

During periods when you are not otherwise physically active, sprinkle “movement breaks” throughout the day.