The Mental Benefits of Exercise
Only recently have the mental benefits of exercise been recognized and fully appreciated. Everyone knows that exercise can give you stronger muscles and help you drop fat, but...
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You don't normally think of being happier, smarter, and getting better sleep because of exercise. But exercise and mental health are closely related.
Some of the myriad mental benefits of exercise are...
1. Decrease Anxiety and Depression
Working out is great for feeling better, long term. I know that when it's deep in the winter, dark and rainy outside, regular exercise really helps me stay upbeat.
In several meta-analyses (reviews of multiple scientific studies) exercise was shown to decrease both anxiety and depression. Exercise actually helps be enduringly happy!
These benefits are most keenly felt when people did…
◆ Regular exercise (at least 9-10 weeks, and preferably more then 15).1
◆ Aerobic exercise (ex: running, swimming, biking, etc.) rather than anaerobic exercise (ex: weight lifting).2
The best results were found for people who were in worse physical condition and had higher anxiety levels to start with. So if you don't already exercise, you'll get more benefits by starting than someone who already works out.
Also, exercise can help reduce anxiety in two ways: It reduces stress from state
anxiety and trait
anxiety. It is extremely useful to lessen both of these levels of anxiety.
A single exercise session can reduce state
anxiety, which is the anxiety you feel when in a certain state or situation. Examples would be being anxious about making a speech later in the day, take a big test, attend an important meeting, etc. 3
Interestingly, resistance training (ex: weight training) was not shown to reduce state anxiety. Only aerobics does the trick, at least according to recent studies.4
Regular exercise can reduce trait
anxiety, which can also be called having an anxious disposition. The mental benefits of exercise, consistent weekly exercise, can make you more relaxed.5
2. Better Sleep
You'll get more restful sleep, in terms of longer time spent sleeping and taking less time to nod off. And while more of the sleep is slow wave sleep, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep time actually decreases after exercise.6
A single instance of exercise elicits a moderate
improvement in sleep, though mostly among good sleepers. However, a causal relationship hasn't been demonstrated well yet. 7
But, many people believe that exercise is good for getting more restful sleep.
I love working out because I know that later I'll sleep like a baby. I wear myself out, and naturally sleep better to get renewed.
If it works for you, do it!
3. Positive Self-Esteem
Exercise leads to positive self-esteem. Just by going out there and jogging you reinforce the idea of yourself as a strong, fit, healthy, confident person.
After I workout I feel self-righteous and GREAT! I exercised, I got off my butt and did it, and I look and feel better.
This is one of the best mental benefits of exercise; perceiving yourself as an attractive and healthy person. Recent studies show that there's a small, but statistically significant, increase in self-esteem that comes from working out.8
For kids, aerobics (ex: running)
improved their self-esteem more than other activities (ex: practicing sports and/or perceptual-motor skills)
Of course, if they like a physical thing they're doing that would probably work great too - since they already like it.
The greatest improvements in self-esteem were seen in children and middle-aged adults. And the self-esteem was tied to self-worth and body image, unsurprisingly.10
4. Better Mood
There's a consistent link between physical activity and improved mood.11
Mood is feelings of well being at a certain time, while self-esteem is a more long term self-concept of dignity, respect for, and linking of yourself.
Most of the public associates the improved mood with the release of endorphins in the brain during exercise. This is sometimes called 'The Runners High'.
Endorphins are released during many physical events. When you exercise, experience excitement or pain, when you eat spicy food, when you are falling in love, and when you have an orgasm.
And while they do play a role in feeling good, as far as exercise goes they play only a minor role in dulling body pain.12
Maybe other brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine help, but these are (as of now) just guesses.
Which really doesn't matter for us.
The mental benefits of exercise are clear, even if we dont' know the exact brain mechanism that makes us feel good yet:
Exercise makes you feel better. Just know that, and use it!
5. Increased Blood Flow to the Brain
And yes, exercise increases blood flow to the brain!! Which has all sorts of fun benefits, let me tell you.
Exercise stimulates growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, part of the brain associated with memory and learning.13
Which is about as close as you can get to something that, for free, makes you smarter.
Though the mental benefits of exercise are shown most in improved reaction time and attention.14
You can focus for longer and respond much faster to life...
Like a hard quiz with difficult questions, a tense business meeting, or an important conversation that needs to go just so
What To Do Now...
Now you know about some of the awesome mental benefits of exercise. Find an exercise program - weight training is a particularly safe and fun place to start!
Oh, and be sure to sign up for the e-zine Starting Strong to get monthly strength training, exercise, and diet tips e-mailed to you - and access to the free e-book Train Smart, Eat Smart: Exercise Nutrition Hacks!
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The Mental Benefits of Exercise
1. Landers, Daniel M. 1997. The Influence of Exercise on Mental Health. Washington, DC: President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. http://purl.access.gpo.gov/GPO/LPS21091.
3. Faulkner, Guy E. J., and Adrian H. Taylor. 2005. Exercise, Health and Mental Health: Emerging Relationships. London: Routledge. Pp. 2.
4. Morgan, William P. 1997. Physical Activity and Mental Health. The series in health psychology and behavioral medicine. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis. Pp. 120.
5. Faulkner. Pp. 2.
7. Faulkner. Pp. 180.
10. Faulkner. Pp. 3.
12. Buckworth, Janet, and Rod K. Dishman. 2002. Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. Pp. 58.
13. Mason, Paul. 2010. Know The Facts About Physical Health. New York: Rosen Central. Pp. 8.
14. Faulkner. Pp. 3.