While you’re feeling that burn, you may also feel like you want to be literally anywhere other than the gym. But your body is thanking you the whole time — exercise has powerful effects on both the body and the mind.
Many people hit the gym or pound the pavement to improve cardiovascular health, build muscle, and of course, get a rockin’ bod. But working out has above-the-neck benefits too.
For the past decade or so, scientists have pondered how exercising can boost brain function.
Studies show that making time for exercise provides some serious mental benefits, regardless of your age or fitness level (yup, this includes everyone from mall walkers to marathoners).
Get inspired to exercise by reading up on these unexpected ways working out can benefit your mental health, improve your relationships, and help you lead a healthier and happier life. (Not a bad payoff for, like, an hour of being a bit sweaty.)
1. Reduce stress
Rough day at the office? Spilled coffee and got your tie stuck in the shredder? Lacey in Accounts threw stuff at you again? Chill out by taking a walk or heading to the gym for a quick workout.
One of the most common mental benefits of exercise is stress relief. Working up a sweat can help you manage physical and mental stress. Exercise also increases concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate your brain’s response to stress.
So go ahead and get sweaty — it can reduce stress and boost your body’s ability to deal with existing mental tension. Win-win! And boo to Lacey — we got your back in the Accounts beef.
2. Boost happy chemicals
Slogging through a few miles on the ’mill can be tough, but it’s worth the effort.
Exercise causes your body to produce endorphins, which trigger feelings of happiness and euphoria. Research has shown that in people with major depression, exercise can increase the chance of remission by 22 percent by circulating endorphins.
For this reason, docs recommend that people dealing with depression or anxiety (or those who are just feeling blue) pencil in some gym time. A 2013 study found no difference between the effectiveness of antidepressants and exercise.
Don’t worry if you’re not exactly the gym-rat type — working out for just 30 minutes a few times a week can instantly boost your overall mood.
3. Improve self-confidence
If you’re not quite at Fonz-level self-confidence just yet, don’t worry — not all of us have to jump the shark to feel great. Hopping on the treadmill can help you feel like a million bucks too.
On a very basic level, physical fitness can boost self-esteem and improve positive self-image. Regardless of weight, size, gender, or age, exercise can quickly elevate a person’s perception of their attractiveness.
Exercise is your way of reminding yourself how beautiful you are. So step on the CrossFit and send your soul some flirty DMs!
4. Enjoy the great outdoors
For an extra boost of self-love, take your workout to the great outdoors. Exercising outside can increase self-esteem even more.
Find an outdoor workout that fits your style, whether it’s rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, or just taking a jog in the park. Even a long walk through verdant pastures and beautiful landscapes can be nourishing for your body and mind.
Plus, all that vitamin D from soaking up the sun (while wearing sunscreen, of course!) can reduce your risk of experiencing symptoms of depression.
Why book a spa day when a little fresh air and sunshine (and exercise) can work wonders for self-confidence and happiness?
5. Prevent cognitive decline
It’s unpleasant, but it’s true: As we get older, our brains get a little… hazy. As aging and degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease kill off brain cells, the noggin shrinks, damaging many important brain functions in the process.
While exercise and a healthy diet can’t “cure” Alzheimer’s, they can help shore up your brain against cognitive decline that begins after age 45.
Working out also boosts the chemicals that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of your brain for memory and learning.
Going for a run now might help you do better in that game of bridge in 40 years.
6. Alleviate anxiety
Pop quiz, hotshot: Which is better at relieving anxiety — a warm bubble bath or a 20-minute jog?
You might be surprised at the answer. (Don’t try jogging in the bath — it is not a safe pastime.)
The warm and fuzzy chemicals that start to swim around your body after exercise can help soothe people with anxiety disorders.
Hopping on the track or treadmill for some moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise (intervals, anyone?) can reduce anxiety symptoms. In a small 2018 study of people with a diagnosis of panic disorder, regular moderate-to-hard exercise led to a greater reduction in anxiety than light exercise.
7. Boost brainpower
Brawn and brains are not mutually exclusive. Studies have shown that cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells and improve overall brain performance. (Why do you think The Hulk is so good at science?)
Ready to apply for a Nobel Prize? A 2019 study suggests that a tough workout increases levels of a brain-derived protein called BDNF, which may help with decision making, higher thinking, and learning.
So, spandex pants may lead to being a smartypants — so long as you exercise while you’re in ’em.
8. Sharpen memory
Get ready to win big at Go Fish and Pairs: Regular physical activity boosts memory and the ability to learn new things.
Working up a sweat increases production of cells in the hippocampus that are responsible for memory and learning.
For this reason, research has linked children’s brain development with their level of physical fitness (take that, recess haters!). But exercise-based brainpower isn’t just for kids.
Even if it’s not as fun as a game of Tag, working out can boost memory among grown-ups too. A 2006 study found that running sprints improved vocabulary retention among healthy adults. And a 2018 study found that adults performed better on memory tests after short periods of light exercise.
9. Help manage addiction
The brain releases dopamine, the “reward chemical,” in response to any form of pleasure. And yes, our good friend exercise can kick off a considerable wave of dopamine.
However, so do drugs and alcohol. This reward cycle in the brain can lead to patterns of substance use disorder.
Exercise is there for people while they recover from addiction. Physical activity can distract people from cravings when they’re trying to quit smoking.
Working out while on the wagon has other benefits too. Excessive alcohol use disrupts many body processes, including circadian rhythms. As a result, people with alcohol use disorder may find they have trouble falling asleep without drinking.
A 2010 study on animals suggested that exercise might help reset the body clock so people can hit the hay at the right time without alcohol.
10. Increase relaxation
Lifting 50-kilo dumbbells doesn’t seem that relaxing… but have you ever caught some Zzz’s after a long run or weight session at the gym? Doesn’t it feel blissful?
That’s because a moderate workout can be the equivalent of a sleeping pill, even for people with insomnia.
Exercising 5 to 6 hours before bedtime raises your body’s core temperature. When your temp drops back to normal a few hours later, it signals to your body that it’s time to sleep.
That delicious sleepy feeling after exercise can help you wind down far enough to get some hearty sleep. But it can also help you relax in the meantime.
11. Get more done
Feeling uninspired in the cubicle? The solution might be just a short walk or jog away. Research suggests that workers who take time for regular exercise are more productive and have more energy than their more sedentary peers.
While busy schedules can make it tough to squeeze in a gym session in the middle of the day, some experts believe that midday is the ideal time for a workout due to the body’s circadian rhythms.
12. Tap into creativity
Most people follow a tough workout with a hot shower, but maybe we should be breaking out the colored pencils instead. (Showering in paint, however, is inadvisable.)
A heart-pumping gym session can boost creativity and spontaneous thinking. We can safely assume Vin Diesel worked out for his “Fast and Furious” roles after the scripts were written.
You can supercharge that post-workout inspiration by exercising outdoors (see benefit #4). Next time you need a burst of creative thinking, hit the trails for a long walk or run to refresh your body and brain at the same time. Sitting at home, slouched over a keyboard, may not be the answer.
13. Inspire others
Whether it’s a pick-up game of soccer, a group class at the gym, or just a run with a friend, exercise rarely happens in a bubble. And that’s good news for all of us.
Studies show that most people perform better during aerobic tests when paired with a workout buddy. It could be the result of inspiration or good old-fashioned competition — nobody wants to let the other person down.
In fact, being part of a team is so powerful that it can actually increase athletes’ tolerance for pain.
Even fitness beginners can inspire each other to push harder during a sweat session. Find yourself a workout buddy and motivate each other!
Working out can have positive effects far beyond those rippling biceps. Gaining self-confidence, getting out of a funk, and even thinking more creatively are some of the great reasons to exercise on a regular basis.
You might think exercise isn’t for you — but it’s for everybody, and it’s never too late to start. We’ve got some tips to help you start lifting, whatever your age.
The possibilities and benefits are endless. Let’s get moving!