Physical activity can be as effective as meds at easing certain health problems—especially if you know exactly what workout is best.

By Jessica Migala
Updated October 22, 2018
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Exercise is medicine. If you moved your body today, you delivered a powerful dose of pain-relieving, sleep-inducing, blood-sugar-regulating natural drugs to your muscles, heart, and brain. Of course, there’s no substitute for pharmacology in some situations, but exercise can be a miracle cure. Here’s to breaking a sweat—and reaping the benefits.

The Goal: Sleep Better

One reason to get off the couch today: a better snooze tonight. “Physical activity improves your ability to regulate your mood and lowers anxiety levels, which can cause insomnia,” says Michael T. Smith Jr., PhD, a sleep expert at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. “Some studies of brain activity show that exercise may create a physiological need for deeper sleep.” In short, you wake up refreshed—not groggy. Exercise can also make a difference during the day, helping you hit your to-do list instead of wanting to nap at your desk. Research reveals that people who meet physical-activity guidelines (150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise) are 35 percent less likely to feel sleepy during the day.

Best Exercise for Sleep: High-Intensity Cardio

Get out of breath—think rowing or vigorous biking. If evening exercise works for you, embrace it. It will spike your core body temperature, and the subsequent cooldown can promote deeper sleep, says Smith. Aim to finish exercising two hours before bed.

RELATED: How to Sleep Better: 7 Simple Strategies That Really Work

The Goal: Manage Cholesterol

The thinking used to be that you should lower your total cholesterol, but doctors now look at the two types, HDL and LDL, in different ways. When it comes to HDL, the higher the better; for LDL, the lower the better, explains Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, director of women’s cardiovascular prevention, health, and wellness at Mount Sinai Heart in New York City. As you age, your estrogen levels decline, and so does your HDL cholesterol, leaving your heart vulnerable to damage. To get your numbers in check, start moving. “Research shows that the most potent thing you can do is exercise, because it improves the function of HDL. We don’t have a drug that does that and helps provide better outcomes for heart disease and stroke,” says Steinbaum. “Exercise is better than medication.” And it pays off: For every 1 percent your HDL increases by, your heart disease risk decreases by 3 percent, notes Steinbaum.

Best Exercise for Cholesterol: Cardio + Strength

A regimen involving both cardio and strength training is ideal for increasing HDL and reducing LDL in people who are healthy or have high cholesterol, according to a review in the journal Sports Medicine. Try to get a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week; at least two of those sessions should include strength training.

The Goal: Alleviate PMS

Cramps, moodiness, and exhaustion: The last thing you want to do is hit the gym, thanks. But dress in comfy clothes and go—you’ll feel better. “It’s a well-known phenomenon that exercise releases feel-good chemicals in the brain called endorphins,” says Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist and assistant clinical professor of ob-gyn at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Endorphins are responsible for the famous “runner’s high,” and they’re a source of natural pain relievers that target cramps. Another perk: Physical activity may lessen your flow. To prevent and treat discomfort, Dweck recommends exercising regularly and ramping it up a couple of days before you expect your period to arrive. Use a period-tracking app and set an alert to ping you to make a date with the gym. This will feel easier each month.

Best Exercise for PMS: Cardio or Yoga

Cardio workouts are very effective at flooding the body with endorphins, though many other kinds of exercise also release them, says Dweck. If you want gentler movement, roll out your yoga mat. Fifteen studies concluded that yoga may help reduce PMS, according to a review in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The mind-body practice can calm your nervous system’s stress response—that’s helpful, since stress is known to worsen cramps. Yoga may also improve pain tolerance and leave you with a greater sense of well-being, something you could use right now.

The Goal: Relieve Back Pain

You can’t figure out what happened (are you sleeping funny? Is it all that sitting or standing at work?), but your back is sore and stiff, and it’s not getting better. All you want to do is lie down and flip on Netflix. Up to 80 percent of adults will experience lower-back pain at some point in their lives, and it’s one of the most common reasons people head to the doctor and stay home from work. However, while only a qualified health care practitioner can tell you the best course of action for treating your pain, “sometimes the solution is not to rest,” says Nick Licameli, a physical therapist at Professional Physical Therapy in Nutley, New Jersey. Pain medications, like opioids, aren’t necessarily the solution either. “Our bodies are made to move. Physical activity helps lubricate the disks in the spine and improves nerve, muscle, and joint functions that play a role in back health,” says Licameli. In many cases, you can’t couch-potato your way out of pain—doing so may prolong it.

Best Exercise for Back Pain: Cardio + Strength + Flexibility

To ease the aches, you need an all-around routine. A U.K. research review analyzing the best type of exercise to treat back pain concluded that a three-pronged approach gets patients feeling better fastest. Cardio boosts healing blood flow to the soft tissues in the back and releases endorphins. Strength work that challenges the core builds muscles that support the spine, relieving discomfort by as much as 77 percent. Flexibility training focusing on the spine and hamstrings improves range of motion to temper pain by up to 58 percent. To perfect the routine, see a physical therapist, who can guide you toward the exercises you need.

The Goal: Lift Depression

If you are experiencing depression but hesitant to go on medication (or if sussing out the right meds is a tough process), consider a natural mood-lifting power duo: therapy and exercise. A plethora of studies have examined the role exercise can play in treatment. Some have shown mixed results. However, a large, well-respected analysis looking at 39 studies, which was published in 2013 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, found that while activity alone isn’t better than antidepressants, for some people it’s as effective as psychotherapy, and it’s certainly better than no therapy, says John Sharp, MD, a psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the author of The Insight Cure. Exercise boosts endorphins, relieves stress, and improves mental health in ways we still don’t understand, he says. Another bright spot: Research shows that regular physical activity also helps prevent depression. The overall takeaway is positive. “I advise that everyone trying to recover from depression attend therapy and exercise,” says Sharp. And that’s all many people will need. Of course, if you suffer from severe depression or have a strong family history of it, then adding an antidepressant may create the mood-lifting trifecta you need. Depression is a serious illness. If you have symptoms—fatigue, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, loss of pleasure in activities—ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health professional.

Best Exercise for Depression: Whatever You Can Manage

One of the hallmark symptoms of depression is a lack of enjoyment in activities, so it can be tough to get up and get going. But one study compared the effects of doing either light, moderate, or vigorous activity for about an hour three times a week, and results showed that even light exercise (walking, stretching) improved mental health. “You don’t need to kill it in the gym to get the benefit of exercise in treating and preventing depression,” says Sharp. Exercising every other day is a good goal. Don’t wait until you feel ready and energized. You may have to push yourself to start, but you’ll be making a big step toward recovery.

The Goal: Prevent Diabetes

Ninety percent of the 84 million adults in the U.S. with prediabetes (a condition in which blood sugar levels are elevated) don’t know they have it. Left untreated, prediabetes can develop into full-blown type 2. If you’ve got prediabetes risk factors—you have a family history of type 2 diabetes, you’re 45 or older, you’re overweight, you’re sedentary—starting an exercise program can bring you back from the brink of a type 2 diagnosis. During exercise, muscles soak up glucose for energy, which lowers blood sugar. “High-quality research from the Diabetes Prevention Program shows that, in general, exercise helps prevent the disease—especially for those who are overweight and lose even a modest amount,” says Matthew J. O’Brien, MD, assistant professor of medicine and preventive medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

Best Exercise for Prediabetes: Power Walking

You don’t have to join a gym to reduce your diabetes risk. A study in the journal Diabetologia found that people who did the equivalent of 11½ miles of brisk walking weekly (less than two miles a day) improved their glucose tolerance by 7 percent. That result is better than the one experienced by people who did an equal amount of vigorous activity (think jogging) and almost as good as the one experienced by people who lost weight through diet and exercise. One final note: “Staying consistent is the most important part,” says O’Brien. Exercise affects glucose control quickly—any effort you put in today matters. Just stick with it.