Fewer than 5 percent of adults engage in minimal daily physical activity, and only a third of kids do. Unfortunately, this lack of activity can affect your health in a profoundly negative way.
1. Circulatory System Problems
Your heart is a muscle like any other and without regular exercises, it weakens, just like a bicep or calf muscle that never gets any use. Then, when you suddenly need to move quickly, your heart can’t handle going from zero to 65 quickly, sometimes with tragic results. Meanwhile, the lungs grow inefficient at absorbing oxygen, leaving you out-of-breath and wheezing from walking a few stairs when the elevator is out of order. Finally, your blood pressure rises, with stiffening of the blood vessels as a result. This, in turn, encourages plaque buildup, which sets the stage for strokes and other potential disasters down the road.
2. Weight Gain
If you don’t exercise, you may have difficulty controlling your weight. The extra pounds that come with too many hours on the couch may be a result of an inactive lifestyle, especially when coupled with poor dietary habits. Life-altering health problems, general discomfort, social challenges, extra health care costs, and travel hassles are all possible downsides of weight gain.
Type two diabetes is on the rise in the world, partially because of consumption of too much junk food, sugary drinks, and other processed foods, but also because people exercise less. The mechanism is simple — too much sugar in the diet causes frequent blood sugar spikes. These are harmful, so the body releases insulin to cut the blood sugar to manageable levels rapidly. It does this by force-feeding the excess sugar into the muscles and liver. Unfortunately, if this force-feeding happens too frequently, the insulin receptors get dulled and eventually stop responding. The result is diabetes, the inability to regulate blood sugar with tissue damage, loss of eyesight, and other dangers as a potential result. Exercise not only uses blood glucose as a primary energy source, it also helps to sharpen the insulin receptors, improving insulin sensitivity.
4. Joint and Bone Fragility
Perhaps the least obvious among the risks of not exercising is the impact on your joints and bones. A frequently exercised (and stretched) joint is flexible, while an unused one is weaker, less elastic, and more prone to nasty tears. Muscle shortening, which goes hand in hand with this, can further the problem by creating involuntary imbalances in the body that cause injuries over time. As for the bones, elderly women, in particular, are susceptible to bone brittleness. Part of this has to do with calcium intake, but exercise is another key component in keeping the bone mass intact.
Regular exercise can improve well-being, which can help ward off depression. In fact, one study showed exercise can help combat clinical depression, and another study showed people who sit for long periods, don’t exercise, or are otherwise inactive have higher rates of depression than those who are physically active. It is also worth mentioning exercise releases endorphins, the body’s own "happy drug," which has made exercise one of the cornerstones in today’s professional treatment of depression. Exercise builds physical confidence, works out bent-up tensions, jolts the brain chemistry, and generally stabilizes your whole system with a general feel-good experience, while lack of exercise achieves the polar opposite.
6. Lack of Endurance
If you don’t exercise regularly, chances are you’ve noticed a certain lack of endurance when performing certain tasks. This can manifest in many ways. Maybe you get winded walking to your mailbox. Maybe you notice that just a few steps into a hike you feel tired all over. Perhaps you can’t cut a rug on the dance floor like you used to, or you may not have the get-up-and-go to chase your children and grandchildren with their boundless energy.
Lack of endurance can seriously hamper your life and keep you from doing enjoyable things. Exercising regularly, even walking at a brisk pace for 20 to 30 minutes three times per week, can help condition your heart and lungs so your endurance grows, and you can enjoy the things you want to without feeling wiped out before you even start.
7. Lack of Physical Strength When You Need It
Without exercise, muscles atrophy. In fact, one study showed men of all ages who didn’t exercise a certain muscle for two weeks lost 20 to 34 percent of their strength in that muscle. As muscles atrophy, strength decreases. Suddenly, carrying that box of groceries in from the car seems a lot more difficult than it once was and moving furniture becomes a real chore. While you don’t need to be superman, maintaining muscle strength is essential to performing lifting, pushing, and pulling tasks.
8. Loss of Balance
Remember when you were a kid and you could easily stand on one foot, ride on a skateboard, or hold yourself up on ice skates? These are all activities requiring balance. When you don’t exercise, balance issues can result due to muscle weakness, lack of core strength, or a sedentary lifestyle. While it’s obvious why you’d want to maintain balance if you were engaging in an activity like stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking, it may be less obvious why it’s important as you age but consider this: Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal accidents for older adults. Twenty-five percent of adults over age 65 fall yearly in the United States and balance plays a key role in helping you stay on your feet or allowing you to catch yourself as you start to fall.
9. Loss of Flexibility
Flexibility helps protect you from injury, increases physical performance, and allows you to move through a greater range of motion. When you don’t exercise, and particularly when you don’t stretch, your muscles and connective tissue tighten, which can create stress on joints, make you get tired more easily, and increase your risk for injury. People with lowered flexibility are at increased risk for greater pain, particularly in the back and hips. Chronic inflexibility can lead to chronic pain. Incorporating flexibility exercises can help improve your overall health and well-being.
10. Loss of Mobility
If you don’t exercise, it’s likely you won’t be able to move as well as time passes. There are many reasons for this, including some of the aforementioned, such as lack of strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance, as well as weight gain. All these factors combine to keep you immobile or decrease your ability to move comfortably and without pain or extreme effort. Likewise, the less mobile you come, the less likely you are to want to get moving, which has a downward spiral effect that can cause long-term health issues.
11. Increased Risk of Death From any Cause
If you don’t exercise, there’s a chance you’ll die earlier than your fitter counterparts. A 2015 study showed lack of exercise appeared to cause twice the amount of deaths as those linked to obesity. Even a small amount of exercise – as little as a 20-minute walk daily – reduced those risks.
12. Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that include abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, low levels of high-density lipoproteins (good cholesterol), and elevated fasting blood sugar. This can elevate risks for a number of health problems, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and nearly 35 percent of all adults with 50 percent of adults over 60 have this condition. Lack of exercise and diet are the two biggest contributors to metabolic syndrome.
13. Increased Risk of Certain Cancers
Evidence links lack of physical activity to certain cancers, including colon, breast, and endometrial cancers. There is a less clear correlation between other types of cancers and lack of exercise, but the evidence is still strong enough that lack of exercise is considered a contributing factor to liver, kidney, stomach, esophageal, and bladder cancer as well as melanoma and leukemia.
14. Decrease in Cognitive Function
Controlled clinical trials show exercise improves cognitive function in older adults improved with exercise. Likewise, one analysis of studies showed metabolic dysfunction arising from lack of exercise can lead to a host of neurological issues that cause cognitive decline. That’s why it’s important to move to keep your brain functioning at peak performance.
15. Increased Risk of Chronic Disease
In the United States, chronic disease is the main cause of disability and death with more than 17 million Americans suffering from one or more chronic illnesses. Physical inactivity is a major cause. Being chronically ill can cause you countless dollars in health care – even with insurance – and greatly decrease your quality of life. Scientific data shows, however, that regular physical activity is essential in the primary prevention (preventing it before it occurs) of chronic illness.
Get Off the Couch
There’s little doubt that exercise is good for the body and mind. If you’ve slipped into a sedentary lifestyle, it’s not too late to make a change. Consult your physician about which exercises are best for you, start out slow, and work your way toward better health.