13 Unexpected Benefits of Exercise

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13 Unexpected Benefits of Exercise

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. Regardless of age or fitness level (yup, this includes everyone from mall-walkers to marathoners), studies show that making time for exercise provides some serious mental benefits. Get inspired to exercise by reading up on these unexpected ways that working out can benefit mental health, relationships, and lead to a healthier and happier life overall.

  1. Reduce stress. Rough day at the office? Take a walk or head 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 manage physical and mental stress. Exercise also increases concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate the brain’s response to stress. So go ahead and get sweaty — working out can reduce stress and boost the body’s ability to deal with existing mental tension. Win-win!
  2. Boost happy chemicals. Slogging through a few miles on the ‘mill can be tough, but it’s worth the effort! Exercise releases endorphins, which create feelings of happiness and euphoria. Studies have shown that exercise can even alleviate symptoms among the clinically depressed. For this reason, docs recommend that people suffering from depression or anxiety (or those who are just feeling blue) pencil in plenty of gym time. In some cases, exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant pills in treating depression. Don’t worry if you’re not exactly the gym rat type — getting a happy buzz from working out for just 30 minutes a few times a week can instantly boost overall mood.
  3. Improve self-confidence. Hop on the treadmill to look (and more importantly, feel) like a million bucks. 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 his or her attractiveness, that is, self-worth. How’s that for feeling the (self) love?
  4. Enjoy the great outdoors. For an extra boost of confidence, take that workout outside. Exercising in the great outdoors can increase self-esteem even more. Find an outdoor workout that fits your style, whether it’s rock-climbing, hiking, renting a canoe, or just taking a jog in the park. Plus, all that Vitamin D acquired from soaking up the sun (while wearing sunscreen, of course!) can lessen the likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms. Why book a spa day when a little fresh air, 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 diseases like Alzheimer’s kill off brain cells, the noggin actually shrinks, losing many important brain functions in the process. While exercise and a healthy diet can’t cure Alzheimer’s, they can help shore up the brain against cognitive decline that begins after age 45. Working out, especially between age 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning.
  6. Alleviate anxiety. The warm and fuzzy chemicals that are released during and after exercise can help people with anxiety disorders. Hopping on the track or treadmill for some moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise (intervals, anyone?) can reduce anxiety sensitivity. And we thought intervals were just a good way to burn calories!
  7. Boost brainpower. Those buff lab rats might be smarter than we think. Various studies on mice and men have shown that cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells (aka neurogenesis) and improve overall brain performance. Studies also suggest that a tough workout increases levels of a brain-derived protein (known as BDNF) in the body, believed to help with decision making, higher thinking, and learning. Smarty (spandex) pants, indeed.
  8. Sharpen memory. Regular physical activity also boosts memory and ability to learn new things. Getting sweaty increases production of cells in hippocampus responsible for memory and learning. For this reason, research has linked children’s brain development with 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 Red Rover, working out can boost memory among grown-ups, too. A study showed that running sprints improved vocabulary retention among healthy adults.
  9. Help control addiction. The brain releases dopamine, the “reward chemical” in response to any form of pleasure, be that exercise, sex, drugs, alcohol, or food. Unfortunately, some people become addicted to dopamine and dependent on the substances that produce it. On the bright side, exercise can help in addiction recovery.
  10. Increase relaxation. Ever hit the hay after a long run or weight session at the gym? For some, a moderate workout can be the equivalent of a sleeping pill, even for people with insomnia. Moving around five to six hours before bedtime raises the body’s core temperature. When the body temp drops back to normal a few hours later, it signals the body that it’s time to sleep.
  11. Get more done. Feeling uninspired in the cubicle? The solution might be just a short walk or jog away. Research shows that workers who take time for exercise on a regular basis are more productive and have more energy than their more sedentary peers.
  12. Tap into creativity. Most people end a tough workout with a hot shower, but maybe we should be breaking out the colored pencils instead. A heart-pumping gym session can boost creativity for up to two hours afterwards. Supercharge post-workout inspiration by exercising outdoors and interacting with nature (see benefit #4). Next time you need a burst of creative thinking, hit the trails for a long walk or run to refresh the body and the brain at the same time.
  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, studies show that most people perform better on aerobic tests when paired up with a workout buddy. Pin it to 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 raise athletes’ tolerances for pain. Even fitness beginners can inspire each other to push harder during a sweat session, so find a workout buddy and get moving!

Working out can have positive effects far beyond the gym. Gaining self-confidence, getting out of a funk, and even thinking smarter are some of the motivations to take time for exercise on a regular basis.

By Sophia Breene | Greatist

Photo: iStockphoto

Links we also love from our pals at Greatist:

What mental benefits do you get from exercise?

About the Author

Greatist
Greatist

Greatist helps you find what’s good for you. Not like “eat your vegetables, they’re good for you.” More like “here are some choices you can realistically make, stick with, and feel really good about.” Because in the end, you don’t have to choose between being happy and being healthy; they’re really the same thing.

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11 responses to “13 Unexpected Benefits of Exercise”

  1. Hello! Great blog post. I wondered.. Does it do the same if you are reading a book while on the elliptical do you think?

    • Rachel, my trainer has always told me if you can read a book/magazine and workout then you’re not working out hard enough and not focusing on what you need to be during the workout. Think about it, you can’t possibly be getting to your max at certain points and you can’t possibly keep form in mind when you’re reading. Now there are days I have a very low zone walk or something but I still don’t read because I want to focus on my time spent. I guess at the same time if that’s the only way you can get a workout in and push through then it’s better than nothing, right? 🙂

  2. Avatar Kayla H. Gisseman says:

    This is a nice post, but I can’t help but feel like a few of them are repetitive. Obviously there are many great reasons to work out. Reducing stress and alleviating anxiety are pretty much the same thing and so is sharpening your memory, brain boosting, and preventing cognitive decline. Those 3 are pretty much in the same category. I guess what matters most to me is that I work out because it makes me feel good and look good. I do enjoy a boost in my self-confidence and knowing that I’m healthy is a definite benefit.

    • Avatar Quinn says:

      As a life long sufferer of a panic disorder I have to say alleviating anxiety and reducing stress are NOT the same thing. Please remember the article mentioned people who have anxiety disorders. Just an FYI for all of you, for most people with anxiety disorders their anxiety is not caused by stress.

  3. Avatar darjealing says:

    i get depressed if I don’t work out. for me it is like missing a meal. I have been doing it for so long a steady time, that it is now, just part of my life, and i miss it when I don’t. along with all the other benefits as well.

  4. Avatar Chad Armstrong says:

    Richard Branson (controller of over 400 companies) said that exercise was his key to productivity. I loved reading this article listing even more benefits.

  5. Avatar Kate. in the UK says:

    What exercises are best for people with rheumatoid arthritis? Also 60 plus.

  6. Avatar Leah Jones says:

    I agree with Kayla. What you forgot to mention is the benefits on increased bone density. This is one of the key benefits to running, weightlifting and other impart exercises.

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