Right now your life might be more edge than smooth lately and that’s totally understandable. This post is not really for my regular dedicated exerciser types. Ya’ll already know. But unless you’re spending about an hour at least three times a week you do have room for improvement. While I do love me some yoga and a good break walk I’m talking about the kind of workout where you work up a good and proper sweat. Sort of like the snake oils of yesteryear a good work out will cure (or at least help) most things. We’re mostly talking about mental health here but there are a few physical ones too. All of those things that drag you down or amp you up to uncomfortable levels do wear on our lives, it happens to all of us. For me personally and science does agree that if you meet physical activity guidelines you can expect these sorts or rewards in many aspects of your life.
What workouts work?
So why am I talking about things like running, cycling hard and trying to beat your km time in the pool and not a walk or yoga. Things like a casual bike ride, yoga and a nice stroll do help you with a lot of things and have great benefits, I do all those things too, but getting your heart rate up is special in it’s own way. The health benefits are greater too but I do think that the mental aspects are enhanced when you break a sweat for a sustained period of time. I would argue that the mental clarity, mood and energy boosting effects are orders of magnitude higher than more gentle exercise. You may not really start to feel some of these things in your life if you’re not getting into that cardiovascular conditioning zone.
Adds schedule and purpose
Sometimes we all feel a little lost. We all have days we just seem to fritter away the day getting nothing done and feeling pretty crap about it by the end of the day. If you’re a regular exerciser at some point in the day you’ll likely think, “I should get a workout in.” Then you’ll feel guilty that you still haven’t done it and eventually at some point in the day you will. Afterwards you really do feel like you accomplished something. If you step it up a notch and decide to run certain days of the week then you start to plan your days around that and it provides a really good anchor for your week. The most intense form of this is following a training plan for a specific goal. If it’s for a bigger race like a half marathon or triathlon it literally becomes most of your schedule and a lot of the purpose in your life. Some people love that others not so much but it’s definitely something to try out once or twice.
Boosting your mood
Working out has a reputation for boosting endorphins and or serotonin which it might do. Check out this article I wrote on Sad Runner on the science of the runner’s high for a deep dive into the biochemistry. The takeaway though is that there is a proven, scientifically tested mood boosting effect even if we don’t totally know what causes it. You can be in a pretty great mood and then exercise and wouldn’t you know it your mood is even better! But you can be annoyed, angry, mad, sad, hurt, cranky or just plain old pissed off workout hard and then it just doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. It’s not a magic wand and it doesn’t magically solve your problems, it’s not a drug after all but the effect is still pretty amazing. Do it often enough and you’ll find the ups and downs in your mood are dramatically smoothed out. As a relevant data point regular strenuous physical activity is as good in treating clinical depression as medication, think about that for a moment!
Settling your mind
Do you ever get fixated on a certain thought, not necessarily a negative one but a non-helpful one at least. It might be overthinking someone’s careless comment, worrying about money or just feeling poorly about yourself or your relationships. We all spend a lot of time on things that thinking about it hard isn’t going to help at all. Getting your heart rate up for a defined amount of time gives you a period of time to dwell on it. When you stop that creates a natural break in your thought process too. Just like exercise gives you more energy over time it gives you a weird amount of mental energy at the time too. I can’t tell you how many actual problems I’ve solved while running. We all have periods where our mental health is off even if we don’t cross the line into having a problem that requires treatment. During those sorts of times I know that personally I end up using exercise more to get through those times.
Feel good about your body
The vast majority of people take up exercise to either vaguely loose weight or get fit. Those are great reasons to start and you certainly can change your body but why do people continue after that? One big reason is all the other stuff we’re talking about here today but even if you don’t lose any weight your body will look better, feel better and you’ll feel so much more comfortable and confident living in it every day! Lots of people take up running in particular to lose those last 10 pounds. If you check in with them 6 months later and ask if they lost it they’ll often say no, not really but I don’t care any more. You may stay the exact same weight but your legs are toned, your stomach flatter and those pesky fat deposits all over are diminished. When I’m working out a few times a week I even find that I’m less prone to bloating. I’ve lived in a body I didn’t take care of and one that I did and trust me if you’re not moving yours on the regular you are missing out! Basically working out regularly makes you feel so much better living in the body you are in right now!
Accomplish something hard
I’m a big believer in doing something big in your favorite sport. It might be an endurance race like a triathlon, century ride or marathon even if you don’t think you can. Sure you probably won’t win, neither will I, but that sort of challenge changes you forever. The reason for that is likely dopamine related which I’m writing a whole post about soon so follow and stay tuned! Dopamine is the reward responsible for all the good feels in every drug out there but when you work hard to earn that dopamine rush it feels amazing. It might even hook you! The structure and dedication required to train for something like that is positive for most people in their lives on its own but when you add in the reward on the big day it really can change your life. For me that really happened after my first half marathon and I’ve run one pretty much every year since.
More energy, better sleep
I put this last because even though it’s a scientifically proven benefit it’s not a guarantee for everyone all of the time. Working out a few days a week can help you sleep if that’s something you struggle with. (As long as you don’t do it too close to bed time.) Most people will find that they are tiered at bed time and fall asleep faster if they are physically active. Plus if you’re getting up early to work out that can regulate your sleep schedule too. That was one of the reasons I wanted to get back into running after grad school but it doesn’t make a huge difference for me.
What does really help me and so many others is that working out gives me more energy overall throughout all of my days. Well most of the time at least. Most people do feel an energy surge right after a sweat session but that goes away quickly. When you’re first starting out you might feel like it wipes you out for the first few months so stick with it. When I am in my heavy training weeks the volume of exercise I do (up to 70 km of running a week) does wipe me out a bit too. Combine that with early morning training and yes I’ll admit that it it can lead me to a few day time naps too. But a few hours a week consistently leaves me full of spunk and ready for adventure!
You might get why people start a workout program but for many it’s a mystery why some of us continue it for life. It’s a bit of a cliche but many runners will tell you that they don’t run to add days to their life but rather to add live to their days. With so many activities out there to choose I’m sure everyone can find one they love! What aspect of regular exercise keeps you sticking with your routine the most? Do you reap the most rewards from vigorous exercise too? Leave it in the comments below!