Exercise. For so many of us it is the bane of our lives, a chore that gets in the way or just a thought that makes us feel bad about not doing it. Heaps of advertisements for staying healthy are thrown at us from all over, constantly reminding us to exercise for our own health. So often we perceive physical exercise as something that gives predominantly physiological benefits, but what about the mental ones? Have you considered that by moving and working your limbs more, the biggest beneficiary could actually be your head?
I’m going to start with a bit of a tangent. For some time I always found running really embarrassing. If you knew me, you’d probably understand. I’m really tall and about as uncoordinated as it gets. Think Bambi on ice, or actually, Bambi on ice wearing roller-skates on three legs. For this reason I normally only run super late in the evening when most people are chilling at home. It occurred to me I would not feel embarrassed about carrying a big pile/bag of fast-food home past people and yet the thought of me bounding past a person while on a run sends shivers down my spine. Why do I care what people think? Running is me helping myself become a better person and at worst I’ll give them a little chuckle. It’s something very human I think, worrying about the little things which shouldn’t matter, hopefully with time I’ll be able to get over this fear of running due to my own petty worries of embarrassing myself.
Anyway, regardless of this embarrassment I began running regularly recently. I started to help myself lose a little weight since I don’t want a sagging beer gut when I’m on holiday this summer, yet I noticed pretty quickly how great I was feeling in terms of my emotional well-being and general happiness. It prompted me to investigate.
To enjoy the glow of good health, you must exercise.
I found a psychology today article that highlighted a range of psychological benefits to exercise that could explain why my new exercise regime had resulted in these great feelings. Firstly, regular exercise can blunt the brains’ response to physical and emotional stress. This is because exercise exerts low level stress on your body which triggers hormone changes. While I don’t know an awful lot about hormones, I know they can lead to some pretty hefty changes on your body, so any reduction in stress with no downsides is a welcome benefit of exercise for me. If you’ve found yourself worrying about upcoming deadlines, have you considered going for some runs to see if it helps ease the stress? Furthermore, it gives you time to gather your thoughts in a way that may lead to you being more productive and organised after you’ve finished.
You probably know about exercising releasing endorphins into your body and the wonderful effects it has on your mental health, but did you know that dopamine is also released into your body when you exercise? Dopamine is that lovely little chemical that makes us feel great for a moment, it’s what gets released into your body when someone likes your Instagram photo or drops you a message on Facebook. If you’re still unsure of the psychological benefits, imagine every step on a run feeling like a new message from a pretty girl/handsome man, it’s a miracle anyone ever stops running to do other stuff!
There are times when I feel lazy and just want to stay in bed all day, but I know that working out is the best way to get those endorphins going, which will make me feel better emotionally and physically.
If anyone who happens upon this post sometimes likes to feel a bit wavy, well I’ve got great news for you. Running can sometimes literally make you feel high. There is something called a Runner’s High which brings a euphoric feeling after you’ve stopped exercising. You know when you get hurt by something and after some time it starts to feel warm and quite relaxing? Obviously not a serious injury, I’m not suggesting someone who loses an arm starts to feel all warm and fuzzy 15 minutes after. But when you get hit by a ball or something. That’s what a runner’s high is like, but better.
Why am I telling you all of this? Well the answer is simple. Literally. Exercise is so simple and our minds are so complex. As the pace of the world around us gets faster and faster we can sometimes find ourselves trying strange and abstract ways to deal with slight depression or anxiety. However, with exercise we always have something we all know how to do with mental benefits so clearly demonstrated. Sure you can try some whacky new way of thinking to improve your mental health, maybe a book gave you some pointers on ascertaining happiness but at the end of the day exercise is one of few clear empirically tested and often successful ways of making yourself feel better.
One last thing, if you’re walking down the street and some crazed mad men come running past you with uncoordinated limbs flying in all directions, don’t be afraid to say hello to me.