The below is a guest post from Marko Rakic, who is a trail runner from Sydney, Australia. When he’s not outside doing long miles you will find him posting regularly on his health and fitness blog, The Ultimate Primate.
When I miss a day or two without exercising, I always feel like something is a bit off. I do everything slower — my work, my chores, even just walking from the couch to the refrigerator. It’s like walking in molasses sometimes, and I find that I can’t wait to hit the gym and workout again.
It wasn’t like this when I started exercising, though. It was tough to get into the habit of it, especially on lazy days, but I would always find myself feeling a lot more accomplished when I get home from the gym. I always felt like working out was both a chore and a treat. Now, I enjoy it more than I dread it.
Why is this, though? Even when I feel my sore muscles, even when standing up from a chair feels too much after my leg days, I still find that I always look forward to exercising the next day. Of course, I don’t overwork and rest when I need to. But why does the pain feel so good to me?
Aside from seeing my muscle gains and improving my physical strength, exercising has always made me feel better about my day and myself, even when I was still starting out. Studies have shown that no matter your age or fitness level, you are bound to find some mental benefits.
In general, you’ll feel a lot happier and increase your brain performance when you start working out. Well, here are 5 mental health benefits of exercising.
1. Exercise helps with depression and anxiety
Feeling down recently? Have a lot going on in your mind? Try a bit of exercise to help relieve the weight that you’re feeling mentally.
Every time you exercise, your brain gives you a little bit of an endorphin boost. Endorphins are neurochemicals that result in a great mood in general. These euphoric chemicals are actually created because your body goes under stress when you exercise.
Since endorphins act as natural painkillers for your body, it tries to come to the rescue for those aching muscles, bringing along with them that exercise high.
Hormones such as serotonin and norepinephrine are also felt much more when you exercise! This is because your brain becomes more sensitive to these hormones, which are famous for being the “happy” hormones found in medicines used to treat depression.
Not only are you going to be in a better mood, but you’ll also find that you won’t be worrying as much as you would have without exercise. Exercise can be a form of meditation, in some way. Connecting with your body, like how your feet hit the floor, can bring you back into the present moment.
Of course, this is all easier said than done, especially when you’ve been suffering from these for a long time. Don’t worry about doing intense exercises immediately. Do things that won’t overwhelm you but will get your body going. A 15-minute walk makes a huge difference. Doing chores is another simple way to move around.
2. Exercise helps you sleep well
I know the struggle of tossing and turning in bed, trying to fall asleep for hours. I also know that, after a great workout, I find myself wanting to hit the hay as soon as possible. Isn’t that feeling — sleeping, body sore, in a soft, cozy bed — one of the greatest feelings in the world?
Science surely agrees that exercise can improve how well you sleep at night. While exercising, your body temperature increases as you move more and more. Then, when you stop, the drop in body temperature signals your body to sleep. Just make sure that you don’t exercise too close to your bedtime; try exercising about 5 to 6 hours before your bedtime.
Exercise also improves how fast you sleep. A study showed that, in older adults, it took them faster to fall asleep at night. In fact, it was cut to nearly half the amount of time. Exercising also gave them an extra 41 minutes of sleep, so not only are you falling asleep better and faster, but you’re also falling asleep longer!
3. Exercise helps you feel great about yourself
I know people who started exercising initially because they had wanted to lose weight. Over time, though, even though they had not reached their goal weight, something in their aura changed. It’s as if they stood a little bit taller, chest puffed out in confidence! What a wonderful thing to see, especially in the people you love!
You’ll notice this a lot in people who exercise, including yourself. Even though they do not possess the body of a bodybuilder or of a model, it seems that they feel like it. In other words, they had improved the way they see their self-image.
Their self-esteem rises because of this. This is not only because of their improved physical qualities but also because of their increased strength. Knowing that you can run 3 miles without stopping or that you can climb a hill easily is a great confidence booster. Feeling like a superhero definitely helps you see your self-worth.
Added bonus to your self-esteem: your skin gets better when you start exercising! Because you get your blood flowing and your heart pumping, this helps prevent signs of aging. Exercise also produces antioxidants to protect your cells. What better way to improve your self-image than to actually look great, right?
4. Exercise helps you chill out
Been working hard at the office? Sick and tired of answering to your boss’s needs and not taking yours into consideration before theirs? It might seem counterintuitive to add more stress to your physical body in order to relieve yourself of your work and life stress, but it’s true!
You might find that exercising after a long day at work helps you unwind and relieve your mind of mental stress more than watching TV can.
When your body is under stress, neurochemicals, such as norepinephrine, are released, which helps reverse the damage to your brain caused by stress. Even a simple and quick walk can help to stimulate the production of this neurochemical.
Norepinephrine also aids in boosting your mood in general. So, not only are you relieving yourself of mental stress, but you’re also making yourself feel great while you go about your workday.
I also mentioned earlier that I find exercise meditative. All you have to focus on is your body and the pain that the exercise gives.
Forget about your work or the chores you have to do when you get home; it’s all about you for this moment. It’s as if you have tunnel vision and all you see are the weights, or the yoga mat, or just yourself in the mirror crushing your exercises. Exercising brings you back into the present moment.
5. Exercise gives your brain a boost
Some days, your mind is all fog and no use. I sometimes feel that haze when I’m writing and it’s just… blank. Apparently, though, all we have to do in times like that is to talk a walk outside and get moving. For one, increasing your heart rate in any way you can pumps your blood more effectively to your brain, bringing oxygen with it.
Some studies have also shown that cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells. This process is called neurogenesis, and it helps your brain improve its performance. If that doesn’t convince you to exercise to get out of that mental haze, I don’t know what will!
Getting older? Exercise has even more benefits for people between the age of 25 and 45. Your hippocampus, which helps with your memory and learning, gets larger when you work out. This obviously is a great benefit especially when you’re trying to remember the name of that actor in that one movie.
Exercise also increases creativity and energy, so you might have more Eureka moments. Walking outdoors can give you loads of ideas for your next project. Plus, getting some sunshine every day will prevent you from feeling down. There’s a reason why people who are depressed are advised to get some of that sunshine every day.
Everyone usually looks at the physical aspect of exercising, flaunting their abs, or their great weight loss journeys. All of this is great, especially if that’s your goal. But people often forget how greatly exercising can positively affect your mental health.
So, for people who are seeking natural ways to improve their brain performance and lift up their moods, exercising is a great way to do so. It is also a great way to remind yourself of your self-worth. Just consult with your doctor first, especially if you have any illnesses, both physically and mentally. I hope you find joy in exercising as much as I do!