Why exercise is important— even if you don’t need to lose weight

The promise of a smaller waistline may get you into the gym, but all of your sweating and panting is delivering far more than aesthetic changes. An active lifestyle isn’t all about weight loss. Regular exercise can help prevent some of the most common diseases of the day, including heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer.

One in four deaths in the United States are due to heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and more than 9 percent of the population lives with diabetes. Both of these conditions are largely preventable through proper diet and exercise, and their risks are tied to obesity. But some research suggests weight loss shouldn’t be the primary goal of a disease prevention lifestyle.

Shifting the focus from weight loss

“Recent articles that say exercise is ‘not worthwhile’ in regards to weight loss promote a dangerous misconception,” says Dr. Guy Mayeda, a cardiologist at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.

A June editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine “busted the myth” of exercise being a catalyst for dropping pounds, saying “physical activity does not promote weight loss.”

But that conclusion is only part of the story. Although weight loss and management motivate many Americans to find time for exercise, those walkers, yogis and cyclists reap many additional benefits regardless of weight.

Mayeda adds that “while exercise alone will not guarantee weight loss in the presence of unlimited calorie intake,” it remains important in reducing various health risks and providing an overall sense of well-being.

Building a stronger heart and lungs

Obesity is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but it isn’t the only one, and your bathroom scale can’t read the others.

“Exercise is the best medicine for the heart, and (the risks of) a sedentary lifestyle are equivalent to smoking one pack of cigarettes per day,” explains Dr. Robert Greenfield, medical director of non-invasive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute in Fountain Valley, Calif.

Regular exercise increases the efficiency and health of your heart and lungs. It can also decrease your waist circumference— a known risk factor for heart disease— and instantly reduce your blood pressure, independent of weight.

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Cancer risk reduction

Increasing your activity levels can reduce your risk of colon cancer by 30 to 40 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute, and the more active you are, the greater your risk reduction, regardless of your weight. Exercise drives similar dramatic reductions in the risk of breast cancer, and researchers around the world have repeatedly linked physical activity to reduced risks of uterine, lung and prostate cancers.

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Improved digestive health

Exercise also regulates digestion, stimulating the muscles throughout your stomach and intestines, preventing constipation. It’s believed this stimulation could be tied to the reduced risk of colon cancer in active people.

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Diabetes prevention and management

Type 2 diabetes is most commonly thought of as an obesity-related disease, and there’s no doubt that being overweight or obese puts you at a greater risk of getting it. But exercise can help even when your weight remains static.

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, waist circumference is the best determinant for diabetes risk than BMI or weight, meaning a lifestyle that reduces your stomach size can reduce your diabetes risk no matter your weight. Also, exercise increases insulin sensitivity and reduces blood sugar levels, again, regardless of what the scale says.

A sharper, happier brain

The benefits of exercise aren’t merely physical. Research has repeatedly shown that exercise reduces stress, improves mood, decreases the risks of anxiety and depression, and even boosts memory and cognition.

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“All studies have shown that people who exercise suffer from less stress, are better with anger management, have healthier interpersonal relationships on average, sleep better and even think more clearly,” says Dr. Brian Quebbemann, bariatric surgeon and president of The N.E.W. Program bariatric clinics in Newport Beach, Calif. “In fact, contrary to the popular myth of the ‘dumb jock’, scientific data has shown that athletes, on average, perform higher on IQ tests than people who are sedentary.”

In short: Stay active.

Whether you’re happy with your weight or need to drop a few pounds, exercise has beneficial effects that surpass the number on your scale. Research published in the journal The Physician and Sports Medicine even suggests that approaching lifestyle disease risks, like heart disease, from a “non-weight loss centered paradigm” could be more beneficial than merely focusing on dropping pounds, even in overweight and obese people.

What does this mean for you? In addition to a healthy diet, staying active is crucial for overall health, and your body weight is just one factor in the complex equation.