It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the benefits of exercise extend well beyond just improving the body’s physique. After all, we’ve all heard of a runner’s high and the slight euphoria that usually follows a particularly intense session with a personal trainer.
But the full extent to which exercise refines and improves the way the mind works might be lost on many. That’s why we’ve put together this list outlining some of the biggest mental benefits of daily exercise.
And given the drab and dreary days of winter that are already upon us, there’s never been a better time to start exercising for your mind as well as your body.
1. Improve Confidence
One of the top reasons to pick up a dumbbell or cut down on the carbs is to improve the physical appeal of your body. It’s nothing to be ashamed about – people want to look good. And when you exercise on a daily basis, your confidence spikes a bit every time you physically notice the progress you’re making.
Maybe it’s increased muscle tone in your abs after an especially intense new dietary regimen. Or it could be finally starting to see a very specific muscle group starting to show after weeks of targeting it specifically.
And therein lies the second aspect of how exercise builds confidence: it helps you realize that the power to change yourself is actually in your hands. There are so many things in life that we just cannot control. But just like developing an entirely new skill or completing a drawn-out project, simply finishing what you set out to do and stepping back to admire the results can be incredibly empowering.
2. Reduce Stress
Stress is an essential part of navigating daily life. It’s what motivates you to get off your butt and work towards a goal. It’s the feeling that tells you something isn’t quite right and needs to change. And it’s essentially one of the best motivational systems our body has.
But when that stress is chronic and directly affects your quality of life, the fallout can be absolutely disastrous both physically and psychologically.
Mood disorders like depression, anxiety, or even generalized states like persistent anger or irritation can all go hand-in-hand with chronic stress. On the physical side, long-term stress can lead to a suppressed immune system, digestive troubles, sleep disturbances, and reproductive problems according to the National Institute on Mental Health.
Beyond that, chronic stress has also been linked to higher instances of heart disease, elevated blood pressure, and diabetes among other diseases.
Ultimately, stress can be a killer. And one of the best ways of mitigating your stress is through exercise. According to the American Psychological Association, using exercise to help manage stress is one of the most effective methods for almost two thirds of survey respondents.
And beyond the immediate exercise benefits, physical fitness also contributes to a number of other long-term stress managing factors including improved sleep, healthy confidence, and a sunnier disposition thanks to mood-boosting chemicals in the brain.
3. Sharpen the Mind
Improving focus has become a bit of an obsession in the U.S. lately. And you can tell by walking into any gas station. You’ll see brightly packaged pills, small shots of horribly flavored liquid, and even transdermal skin patches, all touting their ability to boost your focus and improve your mental functioning.
And don’t forget about Starbucks. Caffeine (which has some pretty impressive benefits for exercise) has become so common in daily life that many people simply cannot function without it.
But there’s another way of improving focus that many people simply aren’t tapping into – exercising.
Numerous studies have shown that exercising for even just 20 minutes a day can help supercharge your focus for several hours afterwards. One randomized controlled trial, for instance, found that after-school sports classes dramatically helped students become better at ignoring distractions, storing and altering information mentally, and multitasking.
Dr. Joh Ratey, author of “Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” boils it down to the brain’s increased effectiveness at regulating blood flow and brain-derived protein in the region, also called neuroplasticity. The focus-boosting effect of exercise, he says can end up raising your concentration levels for up to two to three hours after the activity.
So if you’re feeling trapped under a thick mental fog this winter, the best thing to get out of it may be a quick jog around the block.
4. Builds Other Healthy Habits
When you get on an exercise kick, it tends to change the way you look at the world. Suddenly your body changes from just being “you” and turns into something you need to maintain, take care of, and nourish.
And this altered perspective tends to permeate to other areas of your life when you begin exercising. Maybe after looking for ways to cut calories from your diet (for weight loss purposes alone) you start taking different vitamins and nutrients into consideration. You may start opting for actually healthier food rather than just whatever’s going to help you look the best.
Perhaps you start picking up other habits too. Getting a full 8 hours of sleep each night rather than just trying to catch up over the weekend (which doesn’t actually work by the way). Or maybe you pass on soda at lunch and instead have a glass of water to quench your thirst.
Or maybe you decide to cut down on your alcohol intake, a choice that can have some pretty serious benefits when it comes to getting the most out of your workout routine.
The point is that once you start exercising regularly, you tend to develop a new mindset that’s focused on overall health rather than just physical appearance. And the healthier the body, the healthier the mind.
5. Stave Off Cognitive Disorders
Aging can be a rough process. Your skin begins to sag in the worst of places, your hairline recedes at an unnerving pace, joints and muscles weaken, and most frustratingly, your memory and cognitive abilities may start declining faster than you can get a hold on.
And before you say, “well, that won’t happen to me,” the truth of the matter is that cognitive impairment in the golden years is a serious and widespread problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cognitive impairment affected more than 16 million Americans in 2011 and is set to rise as Alzheimer’s becomes increasingly common.
However, research shows that one of the best ways of keeping the brain young and staving off cognitive decline is by exercising on a regular basis. One study in particular found that among 6,400 individuals over the age of 65, participants were 36% less likely to develop cognitive impairment when moderate to vigorous activity was incorporated into their daily routine.
Improved blood flow, enhanced cell repair, and the lowered risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes (which may impact mental acuity over time) are suspected to be some of the driving factors here.
And while the exact mechanisms may still be up for debate, the results are clear: exercise helps keep the brain young.
6. Improve Your Mood
Whether you’re doing laps around the track or are engaged in an expertly crafted strength training routine, it doesn’t take long for the effects of a solid bout of exercise to wash over you. You may be tired and sore, but if you’ve gotten your blood pumping enough then you’re likely to feel a significant boost in your mood.
Beyond the feeling of accomplishment that a successful day at the gym provides, exercise also spurs the production and distribution of mood-enhancing chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor, also known as BDNF. These neurotransmitters all help to reduce stress, quell physical pain, and produce the after-exercise euphoria that can feel so rewarding.
But the impacts of exercise on your mood aren’t just relegated to the short-term either. Research has shown that the benefits of exercise in combating depression can be quite substantial, so much so that experts have even compared its effectiveness to actual antidepressants.
So, if you’re feeling down, go get your blood pumping at the gym. You might be surprised at just how much it helps.
7. Boost Your Memory
One of the most exciting psychological benefits of daily exercise is that it can actually have a powerful effect on developing both verbal memory and learning. Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that aerobic exercise can actually increase the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that’s instrumental in retaining information.
Scientists point to some of the most substantial exercise health benefits as the cause – namely the reduction in inflammation, the stimulation and release of certain growth factors in the brain, and the decrease in insulin resistance that comes with regular physical exercise.
Beyond that, exercise can also help boost memory indirectly by reducing stress, improving sleep, and eliminating some of the mental clutter that can impede brain function.
The Importance of Working Out: It’s More Than Physical
The benefits of exercise extend well beyond just the physical ones. And while achieving and maintaining your ideal physique can be incredibly empowering, the improved cognition and memory, enhanced mood and confidence, and future mental health benefits that come with regular daily exercise are benefits that just may end up being more important than a physical aesthetic.
So, if you are feeling a bit down or just mentally sluggish this winter, try heading out to the gym. Trust us, you’ll be happy you did.