The Effects of Exercise on the Body Systems

Male runner stretching leg in park, low angle view
The body’s systems adapt to exercise, with immediate and long-term changes affecting your muscles, bones, hormones, and immune system. (Image: Janie Airey/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

New studies appear almost daily on the benefits of exercise, from lowering your risk of heart disease to improving memory. Whether you exercise for strength, endurance, or flexibility, the functioning of the body is related to physiological functioning.

The body’s main physiological support systems are the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, immune, nervous, and endocrine systems.

The Musculoskeletal System

The skeleton creates a supporting framework and protects the body’s vital organs. The bones also act as a reservoir for calcium and other minerals. Weight-bearing exercise strengthens your bones and helps prevent osteoporosis.

Exercise also increases muscle strength, coordination, and balance. Your muscles (and connective tissue linking the bones) are important for maintaining upright posture against gravity and enabling movement. They also produce heat. Movement of the joints lubricates them with synovial fluid, reducing stiffness. Stretching exercises can facilitate mobility and flexibility of the joints, increasing your range of motion.

The Cardiovascular and Immune Systems

At the center of the cardiovascular system is your heart. Along with the blood vessels, it forms a network for carrying blood containing oxygen and nutrients to the body, and removing waste (carbon dioxide). Physical training strengthens your heart and normalizes blood pressure, lowering your risk of heart disease. [see ref 1]

The blood vessels are supported by the lymph vessels and nodes (which make your immune cells). The lymphatic system removes toxins and returns them to the blood circulation. Exercise boosts lymph flow, thus promoting a healthy immune system, which is crucial for fighting infections.

The Nervous and Endocrine Systems

Your nervous system consists of the brain and nerves. Its function is to receive, store, process, and send information. It controls functions such as heart rate and breathing, as well as motor movement. Exercise calms your nervous system, as a result of better circulation and reduced muscle tension. Recent studies have shown that regular exercise may also improve thinking skills and enhance memory. (see ref 2)

The endocrine system is closely associated with the nervous system. It sends hormones to the body to control growth, blood sugar levels, body temperature, and metabolism. Exercise regulates your hormonal balance, enhancing organ function and physical fitness, and lifting your mood.

The Digestive and Respiratory Systems

The lungs provide the body with oxygen, which is necessary for cellular survival. Exercise increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the body and contributes to the elimination of carbon dioxide. The effects of exercise on respiration are seen almost immediately.

Your digestive system breaks down food into usable nutrients and eliminates waste products. Over time, it tends to get sluggish and works less efficiently. Exercise contributes to proper functioning of the digestive system, and aids the elimination of waste.

Physiological adaptations vary from one person to the next. Major factors, according to the Centers for Disease Control, include the intensity, duration, and frequency of exercise, along with age and initial fitness level. [see ref 3]

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