“Body fat is structurally important,” explains Stefanie Mendez, R.D., co-founder of Matriarch, a women's fitness and nutrition service. “It cushions our organs and insulates our body for temperature control and also is our body’s source of energy reserves. Beyond that, fat is needed for the production of hormones and reproduction functions.” And that fat can show up in your thighs, your belly, and, yes, your upper arms. Where it goes is partly due to genetics; if your mom has arm fat, science says you have a 62 percent chance of inheriting that trait.
Although the cardiovascular effects of exercise are partly related to inflammation, they still deserve their own category. Exercise is one of the best-illustrated things we can do for our hearts, and this includes markers like blood pressure and cholesterol, in addition the physical structure of the heart itself, and blood vessel function. Studies have suggested that 30 minutes per day is good enough to keep the heart in shape, while others have suggested we do more than this to get a real effect. Some have found that light activity is even enough to help the heart, but not all research confirms this, so it’s a little hard to tell how low levels of activity affect heart health over the long term. Additionally, too much exercise has also been shown to be stressful to the heart. So all this is to say that there’s probably a sweet spot somewhere in the middle for optimal cardiovascular health.
Though some people actually love physical activity and look forward to it, for many of us, exercising is a mighty drag. Exercise has also had an added PR problem in recent years: A growing body of evidence has shown that it’s not all that good for weight loss, which was probably many people’s reason for doing it in the first place. It may help with weight a little, especially for maintenance, but by and large, if you want to drop pounds, the most effective way is to eat less, not necessarily to exercise more. That said, research in recent years has also illustrated quite persuasively what exercise is good for—and it is actually good for a number of things, including some very profound things, like reducing dementia risk. Here’s what science tells us we should probably keep exercising for, even though we may not love every minute of it.
McAlpine's favorite on-the-go exercise is a classic for a reason: Push-ups are one of the most effective bodyweight exercises around. "Primarily, this move will target your chest, triceps, and your anterior deltoid muscles (the front of your shoulders)," says McAlpine. It also seriously works your core. Plus, there's something that just feels badass about working on push-ups and seeing yourself improve over time. "I personally love that feeling of strength that comes from this simple move," says McAlpine.
Studies have consistently shown that physical activity can help treat depression, and on the flipside, that low activity levels are a big risk factor for it. The antidepressant effect of exercise seems to be moderated in part through serotonin, the brain chemical that’s targeted with some antidepressants, and in part through bone-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). And this goes back to the generation of new cells mentioned earlier—exercise, though various mechanisms, seems to make the brain more plastic and more capable of growing new cells.
And perhaps one of the best new findings about exercise — especially if you, like many people, struggle to find the time to fit it into a busy day — is that all those benefits of physical activity can be had even if you only squeeze in a few minutes of exercise a day. While doctors used to think that we needed to engage in 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day, new research is finding that we can see benefits with shorter bursts of physical activity. “As little as 15 minutes a day of high-intensity activity that leaves you breathless, like swimming, can kick start your metabolic rate and reduce body fat and increase muscle mass,” says Dr. Berger.
If you're ready to move on from classic Bulgarian split squats, Swan's amped-up variation gets your upper body in on the action for a true total-body exercise. "This combination move works your legs, butt, chest, back, arms, and core," she says. "And it not only hits all the major muscle groups—it also lets you work on balance." Give it a shot and you'll see why.