In my last blog I talked about the physical benefits of exercise. And I did not address weight loss on purpose. Exercise is usually recommended to people who want to lose weight (actually they want to lose body fat as explained in my blog about why the scale is not a good gauge of success). However, I believe that exercise should be part of our life as a means to keep us healthy. Everybody should exercise. And healthy bodies don’t have excessive fat. I also believe that exercise cannot make up for unhealthy food choices. Good nutrition is absolutely crucial for a healthy body.
Although I split the benefits of exercise into two separate blog posts, i.e. physical and mental benefits, they are connected. I think most of us know that the mind influences the body, and the body affects the mind. One of the first sayings I learnt in Latin (yes, I studied Latin for 6 years!) was “mens sana in corpore sano”. You probably know it too, it means “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. Mind and body go together, so if exercise is good for one, it’s also good for the other.
I am not specifying the kind of exercise that would be more or less appropriate for one or the other. This depends a lot on an individual’s situation. Running may be good for one person, whereas for another one walking would be more beneficial. If you are interested in incorporating more exercise into your life, I would recommend talking to a specialist, such as a (holistic) doctor, health coach or personal trainer. They can look at your specific health situation, your goals and preferences and recommend appropriate exercise.
1 Relieves stress
Unfortunately, most of us these days are stressed. Never ending to do lists, work pressure, family demands, road rage, unpaid bills. We don’t even notice how our bodies and minds are under constant stress. Our bodies were designed to deal with stress in a “flight or fight” situation. A situation that wouldn’t last more than a few minutes probably (fight or run away from a predator). But in our world today, the stress rarely goes away because a lot of time it’s emotional, not physical. That’s why it’s important to make sure we give our mind and body a break.
Exercise can be that perfect break. Physical activity (for leisure, not work) provides distraction from stress. When you exercise you forget about your daily worries and your focus shifts to your body and yourself within that moment. Exercise helps to relax muscles and relieve tension in the body (this of course is highly dependent on the type of exercise you choose to do).1 It increases circulation and thereby oxygen and blood flow in your whole body.
2 Better sleep
Sufficient sleep is crucial for optimum health. Exercise is the cheapest, safest, easiest and healthiest way to improve sleep. People who exercise regularly report better sleep.2
Reid and colleagues found that 4 months of aerobic exercise training in a sample of older adults with insomnia significantly improved sleep quality while also reducing daytime sleepiness and depressive symptoms.2
Little attention has been given to the possibility that the various components of an exercise regimen (e.g., dose, mode, timing) have differential effects on sleep.3
In my opinion, more vigorous exercising in the morning or afternoon can help improve sleep patterns and sleep quality. In the evening it is better to focus on moderate exercises such as walking, easy bike riding, yoga or stretching.
3 Better mental health
A lot of people exercise for the physical benefits, such as building muscle. However, many people, including me, exercise because it makes them feel great. It puts you in a good mood. Exercising releases endorphins, a chemical that makes you feel happy. This is confirmed by research. Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression just as well as antidepressants.4 As mentioned in my previous blog about the physical benefits, exercise is effective as a depression fighter because it promotes changes in the brain. It also relates to point 1 above, exercise provides distraction and therefore pulls you out of a negative thinking cycle that feeds depression. Furthermore, exercise helps with anxiety, ADHD, PTSD and trauma. Working out with friends or family (even your kids) can increase the effectiveness – see next point 4.
4 Surrounded by like-minded people
I really love running outdoors. Being in nature, hearing the birds sing, breathing fresh air, listening to the rhythm of my feet hitting the ground. However, I also love working out at the gym doing group classes. There is nothing like the energy that a bunch of like-minded people produce. We’re usually having so much fun during spinning or circuits. We’re breathing hard but always find a moment to have a laugh. Companionship is not only more fun, but also motivating. Exercising with one or several people together gives us the opportunity to encourage each other. It holds us accountable too, to keep up our commitment. For me, a lot of my catching up with friends, chatting and laughing happens at the gym, not sitting down somewhere having coffee. And I love to be active with my kids – my favourite is probably hiking. Try not to be self-conscious and too shy to join a group. No matter your age, fitness level or weight, you will find people who try to get fit and healthy just like you.
5. Healthy lifestyle mindset
As I mentioned above, you cannot outrun a bad diet. I don’t think it is helpful for a lot of people to recommend exercise as a means to lose weight as I explained in A Working Approach to Weight Loss. However, I do believe that regular exercising helps in making better food choices. When regular exercise becomes part of our life, our mindset shifts its focus more to our health. This is confirmed by research.5 If our focus is our health, both mental and physical, then every choice we make during a single day is (positively) affected by this.
I really hope my discussion of the physical and mental benefits of exercise and of putting the focus on your health and less on your weight and body composition, is helping with your journey to a happy, healthy and beautiful YOU. As always, please let me know your thoughts and if exercise has helped you on your own journey.
2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2992829/ Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia, Reid KJ, Baron KG, Lu B, Naylor E, Wolfe L, Zee PC, Sleep Med. 2010 Oct; 11(9):934-40.
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4341978/ The bidirectional relationship between exercise and sleep: Implications for exercise adherence and sleep improvement
4 Study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – quoted in https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm
5 Jayawardene, Wasantha P et al, Exercise in Young Adulthood with Simultaneous and Future Changes in Fruit and Vegetable Intake, Journal of the American College of Nutrition Volume 35, 2015 – Issue 1
2 thoughts on “Mental Benefits of Exercise”
I just found your blog, really great stuff – especially the relive stress part.
I like to say exercise for the body is like a break for the mind.
Looking forward to reading more!
Thank you Joseph! I think you’re right, exercise is great for a racing mind, to stop going in circles, to shift focus – and have fun!
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