Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Research shows exercise benefits mental, physical health

UW experts weigh in on various exercise types, health outcomes
Aliya Iftikhar

There are many benefits to working out beyond what someone can see. Working out can decrease mortality, improve heart, mental and physical health and overall performance.

Jill Barnes, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin, researches how different types of exercise effect blood sugar and blood vessels. Barnes has her undergraduate and graduate degrees in kinesiology and spent time at Mayo Clinic doing a postdoctoral fellowship in integrative physiology. Her current research lab focuses on cerebral blood flow. 

“[Cerebral blood flow] has relevance for neurodegenerative disease, dementia and cognitive decline,” Barnes said. “And then we look at aging to see how different lifestyle modifications, exercise being one of them, and how they might affect aging itself.” 


Her research has specifically focused on the carotid artery, which is a large artery in the neck affecting heart functions. The carotid artery receives blood pumped from the heart and sends it to the head and brain. If the carotid artery does not function properly, it will negatively affect the nerves in the brain, as well as disturb the artery’s regulation of blood pressure.  

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Barnes said that the carotid artery is largely responsible for delivering nutrients to vital brain structures, so it is important that it is highly functional. 

Barnes said blood tissue health is a major indicator of heart diseases, which are the leading cause of death in the United States. Doctors will recommend aerobic exercise, like cardio workouts, to decrease blood pressure and stimulate heart health. 

“In that way, we can kind of get a picture of what’s happening in the underlying physiology and try to do something about it well before there’s any disease,” Barnes said. 

Barnes said the functions of this artery naturally decline with age, but the type of exercise an individual does can also affect the function of the carotid artery. 

In research for her graduate work, Barnes noticed that running positively impacted the functions of the carotid artery. 

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But, when they studied adults who regularly engaged in high-intensity resistance training, like heavy weight lifting, they noticed the functions worsened. Barnes said it was likely because of the high-pressure fluctuations in resistance exercises. These fluctuations cause blood pressure to rise which can lead to heart problems. 

There are many exercises that fall between the benefits of resistance and aerobic exercises. For example, Barnes’s research looked at rowing, which combines strength and cardio. Rowing did improve the carotid artery function, but not as much as an entirely cardio exercise like running. 

In addition to helping students keep a healthy heart, exercise also benefits student psychological health. 

John Offerman, the assistant director of fitness at UW Rec Well, said in an email to The Badger Herald that exercise can help students succeed academically. 

Offerman referenced a 2014 study that tested 36 healthy college-aged adults. Participants did a 30-minute cycling exercise before taking the Stroop Test, which measures attention span and cognitive flexibility. The study found that people performed better on these tests after exercising. 

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He added that students also see a mood boost and improvement in sleep when they exercise.  Barnes said scientists concluded the psychological benefits of aerobic exercise are clear after years of research

“That seems to be something that’s very well established — that many scientists believe that exercise has a beneficial effect on the brain in terms of psychology in terms of thinking about well-being,” Barnes said. 

Daniel Schaefer, an assistant professor of kinesiology at UW and strength conditioning specialist, said that there are many psychosocial and behavioral benefits to exercise training. These benefits include improvements in self-esteem, self-discipline and building good habits. 

If someone engages in more vigorous physical training with a specific goal in mind, Schaefer said this can be good for relieving stress in other areas of life. 

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“What I always liked about training was that it didn’t matter what was going on in life, or the day or in academics,” Schaefer said. “There was always just something that you could get better at.”

Barnes said it is important for everyone to engage in at least a little bit of aerobic activity every day. This is particularly important today because aerobic movement is not something that is built into people’s daily habits because most people have office jobs that don’t require movement. 

Even if someone prefers resistance training, Barnes said they should incorporate at least a little bit of aerobic exercise either before or after resistance training. For example, if someone likes lifting weights, they could walk on the treadmill for 10 minutes before starting their normal set. 

Offerman said strength training is beneficial for boosting metabolic rate, which helps increase energy levels, stimulate weight loss and prevent injuries. He said cardio exercise strengthens the heart and lowers blood pressure. Both types of exercise have significant benefits, according to Offerman. 

The CDC recommends adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week and two days of strength training. 

“Another great thing to keep in mind is that living well is not a destination but a journey,” Offerman said. “Framing your perspective and view on exercise can make all the difference.  Focusing less on goals such as a specific body weight and more on the numerous benefits of exercise can be impactful.”

Offerman said the most important thing for students is finding a type of exercise that they enjoy doing because it will motivate them to be active. 

Barnes also encourages students to find an activity they enjoy and do it regularly. She said the benefits of exercise last approximately 48 hours, so she proposes exercising every two days if that is possible. 

“Personally, I try to do something every day because if I don’t, then I feel like I’m not in as good of a place mentally,” Barnes said. “My actual interest in exercise physiology is now more about performance in terms of my work and how I use exercise and activity to make sure that I’m better at my job.”

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