Does Exercising Make You Look Younger?

From better skin to improved memory, here's why getting active can take years off of your appearance. 

The powers of a regular fitness routine are impressive. Moderate physical activity can improve your mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Specifically, some of the benefits of regular exercise include the following:

  • Build stronger muscles
  • Feel more confident  
  • Help prevent chronic health conditions  
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Boost your mood  

Of course, you can't change your chronological age. But exercise can improve your health to help you look and feel younger than you are, Frank Frisch, PhD, director of kinesiology at Chapman University, told Health.

Here's what you should know about the 15 physical and mental effects of regular sweat sessions on your brain and body.

Exercise Slows Cell Aging

Exercise doesn't just make you feel younger. Regular physical activity may decrease the aging process in your chromosomes.

Telomeres, the caps at the end of your chromosomes that control aging, become shorter as you age. Longer telomeres are associated with longevity. Some studies have found a link between regular exercise and the lengthening of the telomeres, suggesting that exercise can slow your biological clock.

"Though exercise won't guarantee you a long life, it can greatly improve your odds," added Frisch.

Exercise Gives You More Energy

A workout is like nature's energy drink, firing up your brain and body, so you feel more alert and alive.

"Exercise puts your body in a state of arousal, which translates into more vitality and a greater sense of well-being," said Frisch. "Daily tasks become less strenuous and require less exertion." 

The pep in your step may make you feel like you've peeled off a decade or two.

Exercise Keeps Your Skin Soft and Glowing

A dewy sheen on your cheeks from all the sweat dripping off your forehead may be one of many ways fitness keeps your skin young.

In one study published in 2019 in Biology (Basel), researchers studied a small group of adults aged 20–84. The frequent exercisers over age 40 had skin resembling the more supple, elastic skin of people in their 20s and 30s.

The researchers theorized that exercise creates body substances that help slow aging in the skin. However, the researchers stated that more studies are needed to learn how exercise changes skin composition.

Exercise Improves Your Posture

Thanks to muscle loss and bone density changes, your posture can take a hit as you age.

Counteract that effect with strength training, which builds muscle and bone health. Strength training that targets your core and along your spine can help you stand taller and shave years off your appearance, Amie Hoff, personal trainer and co-founder of FitKit Wellness in New York, told Health.

Hoff added that working out also makes you feel psychologically powerful, so you naturally stop slouching and straighten up.

Exercise Improves Your Flexibility

Aging can make your muscles and joints stiffer. But regular workouts, especially stretching-oriented routines, such as yoga and Pilates, keep you loose and bendy, noted Hoff.

But "if cardio workouts are your preference, you can still boost your flexibility by warming up and cooling down with foam roller exercises," suggested Hoff.

Try using a foam fitness tool to remove the knots that form in your muscles and reduce rigidity.

Exercise Helps You Sleep Soundly

If you're struggling to get a restful night's sleep, exercise may be the key to improving your sleeping habits.

"Research shows that regular exercisers fall asleep more easily and are more likely to experience deep REM sleep," noted Frisch. 

Heart-pumping workouts tire you out, but there's more to it than that. Sleeping well helps your body function optimally, so you're less likely to feel stressed and toss and turn all night. 

A review published in 2017 in Advances in Preventive Medicine found that exercise helped sleep quality and duration in a large population, especially among middle-aged and older adults and people with chronic illnesses.

Exercise Keeps Your Metabolism High

Metabolism naturally slows as you age. But scheduling regular workout sessions may help your burn calories and maintain a healthy weight.

You'll torch more calories if you add resistance training to your routine at least a few times a week. Working out with free weights or doing bodyweight exercises helps build muscle mass.

"The more muscle you have, the higher your calorie burn is," Eric Sternlicht, PhD, associate professor at the Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences at Chapman University, told Health. "And it stays higher all day, even after you've stopped exercising."

Exercise Reduces Belly Fat

As you age, fat that used to land on your hips and thighs increasingly shows up along your belly, especially if you've experienced menopause. Menopause is a natural part of aging and happens 12 months after your last period.

Unlike fat in other body areas, visceral fat can increase your risk of chronic health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Visceral fat cushions the organs in your abdominal region. 

Visceral fat may be hard to lose, but regular cardio sessions may reduce it. A study published in 2016 in the Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology found that high-intensity intermittent cardio training leads to more belly fat loss than other types of cardio that burn the same number of calories.

Exercise Makes Your Heart More Efficient

Like all muscles, your heart becomes weak after periods of inactivity. As a result, your heart must work harder to pump blood throughout your body. Eventually, that raises stress and leaves you quickly tired and winded.

But moderately intense exercise, like a brisk 30-minute walk, can strengthen your heart, helping it pump oxygen-rich blood more efficiently through your system.

And that results in less strain, Rhonda Zonoozi, exercise physiologist and certified health and wellness coach, told Health.

Exercise Protects You From Heart Disease

Regular workouts reduce your risk of cardio problems that increase with age, such as high blood pressure and triglycerides. Triglycerides are fat in the blood that can block or harden arteries. Blood pressure and triglycerides are big-time contributors to heart disease, one of the most common causes of death in the United States.

"Exercise also improves levels of HDL, or 'good,' cholesterol, the kind that protects your heart from cardiovascular disease," explained Zonoozi.

Exercise Improves Your Blood Flow

As you age, you may notice that your joints become stiff. Additionally, your blood vessels can lose their flexibility, making it difficult for them to expand and contract as needed. 

And if your blood vessels lose that flexibility, they cannot deliver oxygen-rich blood to your brain, heart, and muscles. Stiff arteries can raise your blood pressure, meaning your heart has to work harder to pump blood through them. 

Exercise can lower blood pressure and improve circulation. A study published in 2020 in the Journal of Physiology found that simple stretching programs, like yoga or Pilates, also help boost artery flexibility.

Exercise Boosts Your Mood

You may have heard of "runner's high," that blissful mood boost that can happen during any sweat-inducing cardio workout. That feeling comes down to endorphins, the chemicals your body releases when you're active.

"Endorphins are like natural opiates," noted Sternlicht. 

Some evidence shows that gym sessions can trigger changes in other neurotransmitters, like dopamine, linked to pleasurable feelings. Those neurotransmitters can also help your brain better handle stress. The confidence kick you get can make you feel happier, too.

Exercise Reduces Anxiety

A long run outdoors or a scenic hike can distract you from worries and anxieties. But there may be a physiological reason why exercise lowers stress levels.

"The endorphin release prompted by a workout has a relaxing effect and reduces anxiety," explained Zonoozi.

Also, meditative forms of exercise, such as yoga or Tai Chi, encourage mindfulness and body movement. Staying in the moment so you focus on your breathing and heart rate makes it challenging to become stressed about a work project or that big presentation you have. 

Exercise Enhances Your Memory

There's a stereotype that aging comes with forgetfulness, but that's not necessarily a given. Some evidence suggests that negative assumptions, rather than aging, can hurt people's perceptions of their abilities. Those stereotypes, in turn, can lead to memory deficits.

But other research has found that everyone, no matter their age, can help their brains age better than average with exercise.

For instance, one study published in 2015 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that regular aerobic exercise increased hippocampus size in a sample of women with mild cognitive impairment. The hippocampus is a part of the brain associated with memory.

Exercise Jumpstarts Your Sex Drive

A sweat session improves blood flow all over your body, including below the belt. The extra blood surge makes you more responsive and increases arousal, Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Yale School of Medicine, told Health. Additionally, exercise psychologically powers your sex drive.

"Working out brings on more confidence about your appearance and body, and that puts you in a sexier mindset," said Dr. Minkin. 

A Quick Review

Exercise provides a full array of anti-aging benefits, and looking better is just one of them. Regular workouts fight aging from the inside out.

The benefits of staying active extend to your physical, mental, and emotional health and even your sex life. Regularly exercising can help you lose belly fat, guard against chronic disease, and handle stress, especially as you age.

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