It’s well-known that exercise is essential for heart health – but what else does it have to offer? More than you might think.

Turn back the clock, one run at a time

“Introducing exercise at any point in life has the potential to reverse the aging process quite dramatically,” explained Dr. Aaron Baggish, the Associate Director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center. Dr. Baggish specializes in sports cardiology and works closely with a variety of athletes.

One key factor to this “reverse aging” is called autophagy. The stress that exercise puts on the body causes cells to increase their levels of autophagy, a process that acts as a recycling system in cells. It takes the worn-out parts of the cell, which are connected to the aging process, and turns them into energy. The increased levels of autophagy from exercise seem to protect against certain diseases, such as cancer and neurodegeneration.

Exercise not only slows aging, but it can also prolong life. Athletes who work out regularly have strong hearts and slower heartbeats. Why is a slow heartbeat healthy? Because there may be a limited amount of them, according to one theory that Dr. Baggish shared. The theory states that the heart has a limited number of beats. Based on that theory, a slower heart rate could increase a person’s lifespan.

Not buying into the theory? Dr. Baggish explained that a lower heart rate is also metabolically more efficient, which is very beneficial for the body.

Exercise is also great for mental health. Physical activity is a powerful antidepressant and can help fight anxiety. It can also stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to better sleep, increased alertness, and elevated moods. “There’s no question that exercise is an effective cognitive stimulator,” he explained.

Not ready to become a professional athlete? That’s okay. “You need relatively little amounts of exercise to get a health benefit,” said Dr. Baggish. He described the recommended 150 minutes a week of heartbeat-raising exercise as the “sweet spot.”

Looking to the future

One of the greatest health threats today is a sedentary lifestyle. “We need to get people who are completely inactive to move. Our society is so geared toward promoting physical inactivity,” explained Dr. Baggish. “Everything around us allows us to be inactive if we choose to be.” Looking forward, Dr. Baggish hopes that science can help uncover new ways to make physical activity a greater part of daily living.

One possible solution could be wearable devices such as Fitbits and the Apple Watch. Numbers and metrics can be encouraging. Many people enjoy counting steps and knowing how far they’ve walked or how many calories they’ve burned in a day.

While Dr. Baggish believes that numbers and metrics can motivate certain people, he stressed the need for a continued commitment to developing accurate information. He’s found that devices can inaccurately measure how many calories people have burned, which is an issue if you’re trying to balance how many calories you take in with how many you put out. Looking forward, he’d also like to see devices that can measure oxygen consumption and sweat rates to help athletes with their training.

Taking action

Feeling inspired? Now’s the time to start exercising. It’s never too late to take steps towards a healthier lifestyle. If you’re not sure where to begin, a short walk around your neighborhood is a good place to start. What really matters is that you get your heart pumping. The key is to get up, get out, and move!