For many people, exercise is a vehicle for weight loss, but there is so much more to exercise than this! The benefits of regular physical exercise are many, such as improving cardiovascular health, boosting your immune system so you don’t catch so many colds, increasing bone density to help offset old age osteoporosis, giving you more energy… The list goes on and on. But on top of all of these great things that exercise does for your body, there are also significant mental benefits of exercise.
This is true for all levels of exercise, whether you enjoy a stroll along the beach or an 11 hours marathon through some mountains just for fun. All exercise helps your brain as much as it helps your body. Here we’ll discuss some of the mental benefits of exercise that should help convince you, if you still need convincing, to start exercising.
Exercise Makes You Happier
Exercising makes you happy. This is not some psychological side-effect of achievement, but is actually due to a biochemical reaction in your brain. Exercising actually causes similar reactions as a cocaine hit in your brain (biologically, not speaking from experience).
When you exercise, your body releases dopamine and endorphins that induce an instant euphoria, so you get an immediate mood lift from exercise. In fact, exercise is often prescribed as part of the treatment for depression and anxiety for this reason. In fact, many studies have actually found that exercise is comparable to antidepressants as a treatment.
Physical activity increases the levels of nor-epinephrine in the brain. Half of the amount of this hormone used by the brain is created by the locus coeruleus, which is the part of the brain involved in emotional and stress responses. This is also the hormone that antidepressants also increase in the brain. Rather than reducing the amount of depression and stress that we feel, it’s thought that norepinephrine actually increases our ability to deal with it.
This is true regardless of the level of exercise you do. A stroll through the park or along the beach is enough to boost the happy hormones in your brain. However, increased intensity causes a directly proportional increase in the hormone release.
Exercising Is Good For Your Memory
Working out essentially placing your body under stress. Your heart rate increases, your muscles are pushed to peak performance and your brain thinks you’re in danger. It then increases the expression of a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus; the memory centre of your brain. This protein helps to repair the neurons in your hippocampus and protect them from damage. This action helps fend off Alzheimer's Disease as we age but keeping the hippocampus healthy while we're younger. While it can't cure Alzheimer's and it's not guarantee that you won't develop it just because you exercise, frequent exercise while we're young does decrease the risk later in life.
Stress Is Reduced By Exercise
As we just discovered, exercising causes stress to our bodies. Emotional stress is also a physical response to a change in hormone levels within our bodies. So creating physical stress by exercising frequently allows our bodies to become more adapted to dealing with stress. Along with the increased concentration of norepinephrine, our body also learns how to communicate better between the different systems that are involved in the stress response. For example, the cardiovascular system, renal system and muscular system all must communicate effectively both during exercise and during stress.
During stress, we also often have physical responses to the situation. We become tense, we feel nauseas and can’t sleep. A gentle exercise like yoga or Thai Chi can help our muscles to relax. We feel much less stressed. Exercise has been shown to have quite an impact on sleep.
Sports and Exercise Help You Focus
I’ve often thought that exercising, and especially stretching, is like a form of mediation. When I’m exercising, that’s all I’m doing. I’m focusing on my body, how it’s responding to what I’m asking of it and pushing it further than I did the time before. Wen stretching, I’m either counting or breathing and paying attention to the level of tension in my muscles. I'm making sure I don’t damage them, but to also make sure that I’ve pushed them right to their edge. Afterwards, my mind is clearer and more focused. I find it much easier to continue with this level of concentration into the next thing I do.
You Learn To Set And Achieve Goals While Exercising
Almost everyone who takes up exercising, does so for a reason. I don’t know anyone who goes to the gym, “just ‘cause”. For many, it’s to lose weight. Lots of other people go to improve their fitness or become stronger. Exercising also happens outside of the gym when people take up sports, such as running, tennis, karate, swimming, dancing…
Even within these things though, we set ourselves goals. Each time we go for a run or a swim, we aim to do it a little faster or a little further. In karate, you learn your form over and over and try your very best and still never get it quite right. But every week you go back and get a little closer, regardless. When we lift weights, we aim to progress to heavier weights over time. Many sports have levels, like beginner, intermediate and advances, or grades like in martial arts. We aim to progress through these levels and set ourselves goals of things to master in each session to get us there.
These behaviours are transferable into other areas of our lives. By setting and achieving fitness goals, we’re learning that if we set our mind to something and then work at it, we can achieve the thing we want. From here, we can then decided to set life goals, relationship goals or business goals knowing already that we can achieve them through the same process. Planning that process out by sitting down and intentionally setting your goals and the steps needed to get there also increases the success rate of achieving the goals we set out.
Exercise Boosts Confidence And Self Esteem
Now that we are able to achieve all we want in life, remember things much better, and are happier and less stressed, is it any wonder we’d also feel more confident? Well, let me give you some more reasons.
As superficial as it may be, we all want to look good. There’s no getting around it. Exercise helps us do this by controlling our weight and body fat, by toning up our muscles and by building shape where we want it. Don’t like you butt? Do some lunges. Want wider shoulders? Lift weights that use your large back muscles. Want to be slimmer? Add in some cardio. Doing these things gives us the confidence to love how our bodies look and to feel in control of it too, rather than just suffering through having a negative body image and doing crazy diets.
We also gain confidence as our abilities grow. Seeing evidence week to week that you’ve become faster or stronger, fitter or more flexible is a great confidence booster.
Exercise is a keystone habit, meaning it has side effects into creating other habits. Once you start exercising, you also begin to automatically eat better, to drink more water, to look after yourself better. You begin to value yourself more and as a result, your confidence grows.
The mental benefits of exercising are all that’s mentioned here and more. Research into how exercise can be used to treat mental disorders is only just catching on now as we look for alternatives to drugs, but there is already plenty of evidence out there that supports the theory. Along with the physical benefits of exercising, it makes you function better in general. Exercise is also not necessarily just slogging it out at the gym and suffering through yet another spin class that you hate so you can say you worked out today. Exercise is fun! It’s enjoyable and incredibly good for you so there’s no reason you shouldn’t be doing it. Regardless of your starting point, there is a physical activity out there waiting for you to find it and fall in love with it.
If you need some help getting started, get in touch with me on the Get Your Ultimate Body page and we can work together to find your soulmate exercise.