Why do people avoid activities that have proven to be helpful? Are they too busy, unmotivated, or not convinced of the benefit? Multiple studies over the years have shown the benefits of physical activity. In fact, my research dissertation for graduate school showed that the physical and psychological benefits of exercise were significant for both college students and older adults. A more recent study published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal found that people who exercise regularly report fewer mental health work absences per month. Interestingly, team sports including going to the gym had the biggest reductions in mental health burden. It seems that social sports promote resilience and reduce depression by reducing isolation and withdrawal. Ironically, more exercise was not necessarily better, with the ideal amount of 45 minutes, 3-5 times per week. Studies have found that exercise improves mental health no matter the age, gender, race, household income, and education level. It seems clear that exercise has the potential to positively impact both physical and emotional health. So what are the specific benefits?
Regular exercise reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, Type 2 diabetes and chronic disease. Exercise strengthens bones and muscles, improves brain health and memory, and boosts energy levels. In addition, exercise improves sleep, mood, reduces stress, helps with weight control, and increases longevity. Physical activity can also increase self-esteem, confidence, and productivity. With regular exercise, depression and anxiety are lessened which can create a greater level of happiness. We gain a greater level of confidence which enhances our ability to grow and stretch ourselves and our sense of fulfillment expands. However, even though we know exercise is good for us, the difficulty lies in our commitment, consistency, and motivation. So how can we get into an exercise routine?
We first need to be sure that medically we are capable of physically challenging ourselves without putting ourselves at risk. Start slowly and do not be strictly a weekend warrior by overextending yourself. When we develop a routine and decide to work out on the same days and at the same time each week it will help us be consistent. Personally, I like to take my workout clothes out the night before so I can jump from the bed into my workout gear without thinking about skipping it. It also helps to work out with a friend who holds you accountable. As we grow in our fitness level we can actually combine the physical and social benefits of exercise since we can talk while exercising. Choose an activity that you enjoy, create variety in your workout, and maybe use music or some other distraction to help you get through the program. Many of us enjoy tracking our progress and having visual aids to motivate us further and see the positive changes we're making. As the study above indicates, having activities that involve others, such as a cross fit training class, can provide support, encouragement, and focus. Personally, physical activity has been one of my most valuable strategies to deal with stress. Figure out what works for you and just do it!