These Are the 5 Best Exercises for Your Health, According to a Harvard Doctor

When it comes to your health, one of the best things you can do is exercise.

There are so many good reasons to exercise. According to I-Min Lee, MD, ScD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, exercise benefits include:

  • Greater longevity
  • Decreased risk of diabetes
  • Decreased risk of many types of cancer
  • Decreased risk of stroke
  • Decreased risk of heart disease
  • Better blood cholesterol levels
  • Better blood glucose
  • Better blood pressure
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Better sleep
  • Better quality of life
  • Helps with weight management

And even if you haven't been super active lately, it's never too late to start. The CDC recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly, plus two days of strength training—but any activity is better than none. If time is an issue, remember that little bouts of movements—think a 10-minute walk or 20 squats in front of the TV—are better than nothing.

If you think you hate working out, perhaps you haven't found the right fit. Some of us are swimmers, some like to dance and others prefer hiking, pilates or bootcamp. Regardless, there are some exercises that have especially health-promoting benefits. We talked to Dr. Lee about some of the best exercises you can do for your health (P.S.- These are the 5 best exercises for weight loss).

1. Walking

"In some ways, it's the best," according to Dr. Lee. Walking is so great because it's very accessible. It can be done by almost anywhere and the only equipment you need is a good pair of walking shoes. Walking is also a great exercise because it is easy on your joints, burns calories, helps manage blood sugar, is good for your heart and helps preserve muscle (learn more about the health benefits and how walking can help you lose weight). The other great thing about walking Dr. Lee points out, is that when you can walk instead of drive places, it's good for the environment (plus, then your activity does double duty by getting you where you need to be). If you don't live in a super-walkable area, try and park farther away to build a few more steps into your routine. (Learn more about the mental health benefits of exercise.)

2. Strength Training

According to Dr. Lee, "Strength training is important—and often overlooked." It's not just about building muscle or losing weight when it comes to strength training, although it does help with those. Adding exercises, like lunges, push-ups and squats helps our hearts, improves cholesterol and increases bone density (learn more about the benefits of strength training).

It's also very important for older adults to strength train, since when we age we start to lose muscle. Dr. Lee notes, "It helps improve function as we grow older. And strength training builds muscle, which is important for glucose metabolism."

3. Yoga

Yoga is often overlooked, but it has many health benefits. Yoga can help with back pain, improve bone strength and keep your heart healthy. Yoga was associated with better cholesterol numbers and improved blood pressure.

Dr. Lee adds, "Yoga is good for flexibility, strength and balance." And when it comes to exercise, it's important to think beyond aerobic exercise. "Balance and flexibility are particularly important for older folks to prevent falls," notes Dr. Lee.

4. Swimming

Swimming is a full-body exercise that's easy on your joints. Dr. Lee says, "It's not as good for building bone strength, since swimming isn't a weight-bearing exercise. But it's a fun summer activity to cool down and good for people who may have joint problems."

If walking or running isn't your thing, swimming is a great aerobic exercise that uses your whole body. It's one of the best cardio activities you can do. Plus, in addition to strengthening your core muscles it works lots of muscles in your arms and back that may otherwise be overlooked.

5. Biking

Riding your bike is another exercise that's easy on your joints. Dr. Lee notes, it's also a healthy method of transportation, so for people who live in bikeable areas it may be easier to squeeze into your day. She also adds that biking isn't as stressful on our joints as walking and running. Biking helps build muscle and improve balance, plus it's good for your heart.

Bottom Line

The important thing to remember is any exercise is better than none. And you don't need to go outside or to a gym to move your body; lots of exercise can happen right at home. Try these 6 best at-home exercises, according to a personal trainer. Being outside also has other health benefits—it can boost your mood and help you destress. Dr. Lee says, "don't forget about protective clothing and sunscreen if you're outside."

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