Exercise Does Not Just Burn Calories

There is strong evidence that shows exercise helps lower the risk of early death, coronary artery disease, stroke, high blood pressure, lowers the risk of adverse lipid profile, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. While some factors leading up to a diagnosis of these diseases are uncontrollable, exercise is a controllable factor that most do not think about. When we think about exercise we think burning calories not disease prevention. Most Americans fall short of the recommended 150 minutes of exercise activity per week. 150 minutes of exercise per week can be 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week , 21.4 minutes of exercise per day, or 50 minutes of exercise 3 days a week. Exercise does not have to take place in a gym. Walking is exercise, biking is exercise, running is exercise, yoga is exercise.

Exercise and Premature Death

Premature death is the term given to death that occurs before the average death in a given population. Physical activity reduces the risk of a premature death. While exercise does not just burn calories there is significant evidence that the higher the levels of physical activity the lower the risk for premature death. In a study conducted by Harvard, called the Harvard Alumni Study, expending 1,000-1,499 calories per week reduced the risk for premature death by 27 percent, 2,000-2,499 calories reduced the risk by 38 percent, and 3,000-3,499 calories reduced the risk by 54%. Its not like every person has the extensive equipment to find the amount of calories they burned during 30 minutes of exercise. However, just knowing that there’s a dose response effect is the important part.

Exercise and Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease is a group of diseases of the heart and blood vessels. Some types of cardiovascular disease include coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. The thought that physical activity helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease goes all the way back to the 1950s. Since then multiple studies have been conducted and the outcomes have been the same. Some of these findings include physical inactivity increases ones risk of a stroke by 60% and specifically in women higher amounts of walking decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease. When we think about the fact that exercise helps decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease it makes sense. The risks factors for cardiovascular disease include high blood pressure, too much low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and stress. Exercise helps reduce the risk of high blood pressure, elevates high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol which reduces total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. Studies also show exercise decreases stress. Exercise is also shown to reduce muscle tension and anxiety.

Exercise and Type 2 Diabetes

Diabetes increases ones risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death in those with diabetes. When it comes to exercise, physical activity reduces insulin resistance. In type 2 diabetes the body produces insulin that regulates blood sugar however, the body is resistant to the effects of insulin. Inactivity increases ones risk of type 2 diabetes by 50%.1 For those who have abnormal glucose tolerance, physical activity can still help by preventing progression from abnormal glucose tolerance to diabetes. Studies show that physical activity reduces advancement from abnormal glucose to diabetes by 44% with physical activity and weight loss reducing the advancement by 58%.

Physical activity and Other Diseases

Physical activity can also help decrease the risk factors of osteoporosis, colon, and breast cancer. Physical activity helps strengthen bones and delay age related bone loss. Those who are inactive have a 60% higher risk of osteoporosis. The bone loading affect of exercise helps decrease the risk. That being said muscle strengthening activity is recommended in the prevention of osteoporosis. Physical activity also helps reduce the risk of colon cancer by 30% and breast cancer by 20%. Physical activity has a positive impact on hormone, growth factors, body fat, and immune function. Studies have also shown that physical activity helps reduce estrogen levels in premenopausal and postmenopausal women. When it comes to colon cancer some studies have shown that physical activity may be beneficial due to increased intestinal transit time that reduces exposure of carcinogens in the intestinal track of physically active individuals.


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Brown, D. R., Heath, G. W., & Martin, S. L. (2010). Promoting physical activity: A guide for community action (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Kohl, H. W., & Murray, T. D. (2012). Foundations of physical activity and public health. Champaign, Il.: Human Kinetics.