If exercise was a pill...would you take it?

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

Exercise, some love it, some tolerate it, and others just can’t find the right fit for them. Many of the benefits of exercise are very well documented. It improves cardiovascular health, makes us stronger, can aid weight loss, and give some much needed headspace. However when you look at all the benefits from doing regular exercise, and the extent of its preventative powers, it’s pretty astounding! It is often said that if exercise came in pill form, it would be the most cost effective drug ever produced, and I’m sure we’d all be queuing up to take it!

Look at these stats, taken from the NHS website, and based on good quality evidence.

Taking part in regular physical activity can lower the risk of:

· Coronary heart disease and stroke by up to 35%

· Type 2 diabetes by up to 50%

· Colon cancer by up to 50%

· Breast Cancer by up to 20%

· Early Death by 30%

· Osteoarthritis by up to 83%

· Hip fracture by up to 68%

· Depression by up to 30%

· Dementia by up to 30%

· Falls (in older adults) by 30%

These are huge numbers, but it doesn’t stop at that. There are so many other added benefits too, and I want to talk about a few important, but lesser publicised, positives to regular exercise.

Exercise and Pain

Exercise is a brilliant pain reliever! It increases blood flow to painful areas, and promotes the release of endogenous opioids (internal painkillers) within the body giving us a pain relieving effect without taking any medication. Normalising movement after injury can also speed up recovery and help to 'turn down the volume' of the pain you are experiencing. We should never exercise into uncomfortable pain, as this can counteract the pain relieving effect and sustain the injury process. However, if completed properly, and guided by our own ability and pain levels, exercise is a great way to control pain and promote recovery. Your physiotherapist is well placed to guide you in this process, and make sure you are exercising at your optimum level.

Exercise and Sleep

Taking part in aerobic or resistance exercise has been proven to help increase both the amount, and quality, of sleep we experience. The explanation for this is debated, with hormone balances, body temperature changes, energy expenditure, and improvements in mental health, all being discussed as possible reasons why it works.

Picking the right time to exercise is key with sleep. If you exercise too late in the day it can have the opposite effect, and leave you feeling too energized to switch off. However, this isn't the case for everyone.

So if you are struggling to get to sleep, spend hours feeling restless, or are waking up exhausted each day, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of using regular exercise as a way of getting a better night’s sleep.

Exercise and Brain Function

The relationship between exercise and brain health is amazing. Exercise can help manage anxiety and depression, and can reduce the likelihood of developing the neurodegenerative processes that we see in dementia. Exercise also improves the brain’s ability to learn, and process information. There is a large body of evidence showing improvements to memory and more effective learning, in those partaking in regular aerobic exercise.

Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, and helps to stimulate and regulate the internal chemicals that drive stress, inflammation, growth and plasticity. Neuroplasticity is a term used to describe the ability of the brain to develop, adapt or change in line with the experiences you have. Exercise can help optimise this process, leading to better learning ability, and improvements in overall brain structure and health. So if you’ve got an interview coming up, or a set of exams, why not up the exercise to give you that extra mental boost!

So now we’ve got a pretty convincing argument to exercise regularly, we should explore our reasons for not doing it. Inactivity is now listed as the UK’s biggest killer. We don’t need miracle drugs, billions of pounds worth of research or endless personal funds to achieve a cure! We just need motivation! The biggest killer in the UK is totally preventable! So why don’t more of us exercise?

The list of barriers to exercise is a long one. They can be big and complex, driven by society or culture. Or they could be smaller, but no less insignificant, like not having the right clothing, or a rain shower putting you off going for a walk. Whatever the reason, there is often a way to overcome it. When advising people on how to increase their activity, I feel it is important to start with small changes to routine, pick an optimum or easy time, and be realistic in your aspirations.

1/ Start small

Can you make a small change to something you already do, and make it more active? For example, a commute to work. Could you make this more active by getting off the bus one stop earlier, or parking further away to increase your walk? Are you able to totally change your commute to something more active, like walking, running, or cycling? Could you make these changes to the school run?

Another time of day we may have some flexibility is lunch breaks. Can you do some activity such as a walk or run with a colleague, or join a local exercise class?

Analyse these ‘travelling’ times within your day and see how you could optimise your activity within them.

If this isn’t an option, then look at when you can make time within your week for just you, and try to do something active within this time. Do you have a friend who is also keen to increase their activity? You could suggest a walk or jog together rather than the usual catch up over coffee. Having a support network when making changes is important, and turning to people who will facilitate these changes, will make success even more achievable.

Being active in our daily routines is also important. Setting an alarm to prompt you to move regularly is a simple way to sustain activity levels in your day. See my guide 'staying active when working from home', a great way to start increasing your activity levels if you do a desk based job.

2/ Time

Picking a time that makes exercise easier is key. Juggling family, work and social obligations is often a complex one, leaving little time to relax. Then when you do get time, all you want to do is collapse on the sofa and watch TV! Sound familiar? Then pick a time in your day when you will have the most motivation for exercise. Personally, I like to exercise in the morning, so I try to run or do a HIIT work out then. I feel as the day progresses, I get busier and my time is more stretched. Other people find straight after work is their key time and helps them de-stress from the day at work.

Another consideration for the time you exercise is what impact it has on your sleep. As previously mentioned, some people find that exercising close to bedtime energises them too much, and they struggle to wind down to sleep. If this happens to you, it would be better for you to exercise earlier in the day. However if you find the opposite, then evening exercise may be the better option for you!

3/ Realistic

It is important to be realistic in your goals for exercise, and your ability to change your routine.

If you have never run regularly before, then setting yourself the target of running your 5k commute every day may be unrealistic, and worse, lead to injury. Try making changes a few days per week, and expand from there. Making short term exercise goals for the week is a good place to start, and it can be varied week to week to fit in with other commitments.

Sustaining and committing to exercise routines is always easier if the goals are manageable from the outset, and can be progressed easily as you become fitter and stronger.

Recommended doses of exercise

It is recommended that adults (ages 19 - 64) partake in at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise per week. Examples of moderate intensity exercise are: brisk walking, hiking, dancing, riding a bike. Examples of vigorous intensity exercise are: jogging or running, riding a bike fast or up hills, swimming fast, aerobics, team sports e.g. football, rugby, netball.

Very vigourous activity such as high intensity interval training (HIIT) should be done in short burts of maximal effort followed by rest periods.

Make sure you start with exercises which are appropriate for your fitness level. Vigorous and very vigorous levels of activity are not recommended as a starting point for previously inactive people.


It is never too late to become more active, and once you have done some exercise, you never regret it! The hardest bit is getting started. The benefits to your health, happiness and wellbeing that exercise brings are huge! So set yourself a goal, and surround yourself with people who will help you achieve it. If you are looking to become more active but are worried about a pre existing injury or pain, then a physiotherapist can guide you in how to exercise safely.

*Any medical information published on this website is not intended as a substitute for informed medical advice. If you have concerns regarding your health please consult with a medical professional.

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