The mental benefits of regular exercise

October 2, 2015

Exercise builds strong muscles but it can also help you build a stronger, healthier mind. Just six months of regular exercise can improve your mental outlook: here's how.

The mental benefits of regular exercise

Exercise benefits

  • Ask non-exercisers why they don't get up and move, and you're likely to hear many similar stories. They don't have time. They're not in shape. They have too many aches and pains. And most tellingly, it's just too darn late to bother.
  • Here are some health improvements you're likely to see in as little as six months if you begin exercising regularly.

1. Improved self-esteem

  • We talk a lot about self-esteem in our children, but what about our own? Self-esteem, or put another way, simply how you feel about yourself, can play a major role in your health and quality of life.
  • If you feel good about yourself, you're more likely to live a healthier lifestyle, to remain active, to interact socially, and to participate in community activities. All this works in a kind of circular way to keep you healthier.
  • And now we know that exercise helps maintain or improve self-esteem in older people. For instance, one study measured changes in self-esteem in overweight women ages 60 to 75 who participated in either a stretching and toning exercise program or a brisk walking exercise program for six months.
  • Both programs enhanced their self-esteem, although the stretching-toning group showed greater improvement. All the women, however, felt better about their body images and strength. The message? You don't have to up your heart rate to achieve a better feeling via exercise!

2. Better stress management

  • There's a reason we counsel people to take a walk when they need to "let off steam." All that steam—or stress—triggers a chemical cascade designed to ready you to run. Your heart beats faster and harder, your lungs take in more oxygen, your liver releases glucose to provide energy for muscles, and your immune system revs up in preparation for injury. If all you do is sit there, however, all that physiological energy has nowhere to go.
  • Given the kind of chronic stress most of us experience, this constant ready-for-flight-with-nowhere-to-go response damages key body systems over time. It suppresses the immune system; contributes to bone loss, muscle weakness and atherosclerosis; and increases insulin levels (you need more insulin to get all that glucose into cells), leading to higher levels of dangerous abdominal fat.
  • Enter exercise. Just a 20-minute jog or stair-climbing stint does more to soothe stress-induced anxiety than simply sitting still in a quiet room for 20 minutes. Not only does physical activity reduce anxiety, but being physically fit acts as a buffer against the damaging effects of stress, such as high blood pressure. We're not talking a lifetime of physical activity, either; just six months. In fact, such activities can do more to reduce stress-related high blood pressure than changing your diet.

3. Relief of depression

  • Researchers took 156 people between ages 50 and 77 who had been diagnosed with major depression and randomly assigned them to one of three groups: exercise (30 minutes of bike riding, walking, or jogging three times a week), medication (the prescription drug sertraline, better known as Zoloft), or a combination of the two.
  • After 16 weeks, all three groups showed similar improvements in depression, but only the exercise groups also improved in their cognitive abilities. Plus, when researchers checked on the participants six months after the study ended, they found much lower relapse rates in the exercisers than in the medication group.
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