13 ways one type of exercise is the closest thing to a miracle drug we have

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Want an all-natural way to lift your mood, improve your memory, and protect your brain against the decline that comes with aging?

Get moving.

Exercises that get your heart pumping and sweat flowing — known as aerobic exercise, or “cardio” — have significant and beneficial effects on the brain and body, according to a wealth of recent research, including a  new study published Thursday.

“Aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart,” according to an article in a Harvard Medical School blog.

Here are some of the ways cardio is such a boon for our bodies.

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The most recent study on the benefits of exercise found that workouts may protect your immune system from some age-related decline.

For a small study published this week in the journal Aging Cell, researchers looked at 125 amateur male and female cyclists aged 55 to 79. They compared those individuals with 75 people of a similar age who rarely or never exercised. 

The cyclists more muscle mass and strength, and less body fat and cholesterol than the sedentary adults. The athletic adults also appeared to have healthier and younger-looking immune systems, at least when it came to a key organ called the thymus.

The thymus is responsible for generating key immune cells called T cells. In healthy people, it begins to shrink starting around age 20, and T cell production also starts to drop off around that time.

The study found that the thymus glands of the older cyclists looked like they belonged to younger people — their bodies were producing just as many T cells as would be expected from the thymus of a young person.

“We now have strong evidence that encouraging people to commit to regular exercise throughout their lives is a viable solution to the problem that we are living longer but not healthier,” Janet Lord, the director of the Institute of Inflammation and Aging at the UK’s University of Birmingham, said in a statement.

Cardio also tones your muscles.

It was initially believed that when it comes to building muscle, cardio paled in comparison to exercises like resistance training, which are designed to help you gain strength. But a recent review of 14 studies published in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews found that on average, men who did 45 minutes of moderate to intense cardio 4 days a week saw a 5%-6% increase in leg muscle size.

“Aerobic exercise, if done properly, can lead to as much muscle growth as you’d expect with resistance exercise,” Ball State University exercise scientist Matthew Harber, who authored the study, told Men’s Fitness

It raises your heart rate, improving heart and lung health.

Aerobic workouts, especially swimming, train your body to use oxygen more efficiently, a practice that gradually reduces your resting heart rate and your breathing rate — two important indicators of cardiovascular health.

A 2008 study compared blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and other heart health metrics across close to 46,000 walkers, runners, swimmers, and sedentary people. The researchers found that the regular swimmers and runners had the best metrics, followed closely by the walkers. 

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