When you exercise, you move your body in ways that expand energy. Physically exerting yourself, through sports, cardio work and aerobics, or endurance and weight lifting, helps activate a number of key bodily systems in the process. This activation results in increased heart rate and blood flow, improved circulation that causes more oxygen to be pumped through your body, weight management, joint pain alleviation, and even battling carcinogenic risk-factors. All in all, exercise (especially when combined with a balanced and nutritious diet) helps improve one’s physical health and contributes to an increased life expectancy.
In addition to such physical health benefits, activating one’s body through exercise has also been shown to improve one’s mental well-being in the following ways:
Exercising helps improve one’s mood, acting as a defense from depressive symptoms. Specifically, exercise raises one’s level of a group of hormones called endorphins, which act as mood regulators. By contributing to the stability of one’s emotional reactivity, exercise helps maintain a more even and balanced sense of well-being, which can prevent the emergence of depression. Studies have found that low-intensity aerobic exercise, carried out for 30-35 minutes a day and three-to-five times a week, is an optimal way to improve one’s mood.
Exercise can also help balance other forms of depression treatment and specifically, antidepressant medication. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a commonly prescribed and FDA-approved class of antidepressants, often causes patients to experience weight gain. By incorporating exercise into their daily routine, individuals who undergo SSRI treatment can counteract this side effect, allowing them to benefit from its proven, safe, and effective symptom alleviation.
Exercise also lowers one’s levels of cortisol, otherwise known as the “stress hormone.” This in turn diminishes their chances of experiencing adverse, stress related symptoms. According to the American Psychology Association, 44% of adults rely on exercise as a way to manage their stress, making it a popular form of self-care.
While stressors are defined as sources of adverse mental and emotional alertness, anxiety is defined as the feeling of continual, unwanted, and adverse alertness, even when there is no concrete reason to remain this way. Like the more source-related stressors, pervasive feelings of anxiety can also be somewhat managed and reduced through physical exercise, improving one’s resilience to destabilizing events and emotions.
Studies have pointed to exercise providing survivors of trauma, who develop post-traumatic stress disorder, a way to regain their sense of agency. By focusing their attention on how they move their body and how their body responds to continual exercise, individuals who had experienced stressful or confined situations in the past are able to focus on the way they are shaping the present moment. As a result, exercise can provide them with a mental as well as physical context that highlights not their limited response options, but their ability to enact change within the parameters of their own bodies.
By releasing endorphins, exercise helps enhance one’s memory and sharpens their thinking, which together contribute to better problem-solving abilities. It additionally helps create new brain cells which help protect against age-related cognitive decline.
With physical exertion come improved sleeping patterns—so long as it does not occur before bedtime. And with exercise leading to better sleep and an easier time falling asleep, one can wake up more refreshed and energized. Additionally, cardio exercises can raise one’s heart rate, making one feel more alert throughout the day.
Linking its effects on weight management and toning one’s physique, exercise can also help shape their body and garner positive feedback from those around them, thereby contributing to their sense of self-esteem. Though at times superficial, receiving encouragement regarding one’s appearance—whether linked to their attractiveness or their assumed health—can serve as encouragement to keep considering their body’s needs.
As mentioned earlier, exercise can also benefit one’s well-being through its development of a sense of agency. Seeing how their actions can influence how they look and feel can motivate them to invest further, in additional aspects of their own health.
Working out not only contributes to one’s health directly by improving physical bodily functions and releasing more beneficial hormones; it also helps by offering a healthy way to cope with life’s various stressors. Rather than choosing to drink, smoke, engage in risky behavior, or self-harm, safely exercising while remaining conscious to one’s physical limitations can provide an outlet for their frustration, as they work to strengthen their body and achieve greater physical goals.
Working out with others can also lead to new friendships, and an expanded social circle. Engaging in group exercise, or even meeting a friend for a joint run on the beach, can benefit one’s sense of community and strengthen their support networks, creating and building upon existing, positive relationships.
Be it at work, within their family unit, on a financial level, or interacting within general society, the above-mentioned changes experienced through exercise can cause a great deal of positive change. Seeing first-hand how exercising can influence different dimensions of their day-to-day can have widespread reverberations, with the individual experiencing them becoming more confident and more willing to enact change in other areas of their life as well.