Health & Wellness: Is exercise masochism or a miracle worker?


Exercise. Everyone and their dog is talking about it these days. Although people desperately need more of it, only a small fraction (around 20%!) of the population can get a habit of daily exercise to stick. This epidemic of inactivity should raise widespread concern, given the vital role of exercise in both mental and physical health. In this article, we will break down what exercise is, what physical and psychological benefits it provides and how to create a sustainable exercise habit that you will maintain and enjoy. 

Defining exercise

While exercise gets a lot of hype, it is really just a subset of physical activity, which is “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure.” Physical activity, then, includes vacuuming your floor, going on a walk, doing full sprints and everything in between. Exercise, on the other hand, is “a subset of physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive and has as a final or an intermediate objective the improvement or maintenance of physical fitness.” According to this definition, exercise is a structured form of physical activity meant to enhance fitness. So, while we’re discussing exercise, keep in mind that physical activity often provides the same, albeit scaled-down, benefits.

When we think of exercise, our first mental image often involves shredded athletes playing sports, Olympians running, jumping and swimming; or muscled behemoths hoisting heavy objects in the gym. Intense forms of exercise like these are, of course, fantastic, but you do not need to become the next weightlifting champion in order to be healthy. (In fact, professional sports often require repetitive physical feats that, over time, are not healthy or sustainable.) Any physical activity that provides a moderate, recoverable strain on the body will strengthen it over time. If health and longevity are the goals, it is best to walk the middle path. 

Before jumping into the benefits of exercise, we should also discuss the differences between aerobic and anaerobic activity. Aerobic exercise usually involves an elevated heart rate over a sustained period and requires oxygen to perform. Examples of aerobic activities include running, swimming, jump-roping, cycling and even hacky sacking.

Anaerobic exercises, in contrast, usually involve short periods of maximal effort and use the body’s glycogen stores for immediate energy. Examples of anaerobic activities include sprinting and weightlifting. Although there are some unique benefits associated with each form of exercise, the physical and psychological benefits associated with aerobic and anaerobic activities are largely overlapping. 

Physiological benefits of exercise

Two of the most often-remembered benefits of exercise are increased strength and improved body composition. A healthy body composition generally has a higher muscle-to-fat ratio, which can be achieved in one of two ways: losing fat or gaining muscle. 

A 2013 meta-analysis examined the effects of resistance training (e.g., weightlifting) on the strength and body composition of overweight and obese children and adolescents. Ultimately, it found that resistance training produced significant improvements in both strength and body composition. A more recent study further corroborated these findings, showing that the individuals who participated in resistance training significantly improved maximum muscle strength, cardiorespiratory fitness, flexibility and body composition. While these studies examined anaerobic resistance training, a broad body of literature exists on aerobic training, which also leads to improved strength and body composition. Not only does physical exercise make you look good, but it also makes your body more functional. 

Psychological benefits of exercise

Increased well-being. In addition to its physical benefits, exercise also boasts an impressive host of psychological benefits. One of the most well-known and well-studied psychological benefits of exercise is a lower risk of both depression and anxiety. 

A 2020 study, with participants exercising once or twice a week and three or more times a week, reported experiencing far fewer symptoms of depression or anxiety than those that never or rarely exercised during a year-long period, with odds of .75-to-1 and .72-to-1, respectively. According to this study, you can decrease your odds of experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety by about 25% just by taking a few hours a week to exercise. 

Not only does exercise protect against negative mental health outcomes, but it can enhance overall life satisfaction as well. Another 2020 study found that adolescents that engage in more physical activity per week and with better physical fitness experienced better cognition, better self-efficacy, self-rated health and life satisfaction. These findings indicate that more exercise and better physical fitness may be essential ingredients for improving health and well-being. 

Enhanced cognition. Exercise not only makes us feel better but helps us think better too. Significant research suggests that exercise contributes to improved cognitive performance in a number of different areas. 

One study followed school-age children for a year while they participated in a multicomponent physical activity intervention aimed at improving cognitive performance. The children in the intervention group demonstrated improved cognition in spatial factor cognition and general intelligence compared with children in the control group. The study also found that motor fitness mediated these changes, indicating improved fitness contributed to these cognitive improvements. 

Additionally, a systematic review of the available literature indicated a positive association between aerobic exercise and attention. Greater aerobic fitness predicted better attention in the majority of the included studies. However, the best effects were seen with longer interventions, indicating that it may be improved fitness over the longer term that improves attention. Overall, research indicates that exercise can improve several areas of cognitive performance, so if you are looking to do better at work and in the classroom, exercise may be your secret weapon. 

Improved behavioral regulation. Physical exercise also correlates with improvements in behavioral regulation. One study examined the effects of a health fitness program on behavioral regulation among women with a sedentary lifestyle, finding significant improvements on several measures of behavioral regulation, including intrinsic regulation. These findings indicate that engaging in exercise may increase intrinsic motivation to exercise. If you are struggling to establish an exercise habit due to a lack of motivation, simply exercising consistently can help increase intrinsic motivation. 

Common roadblocks and possible solutions

If the benefits of exercise are so immense, why do so few people maintain a habit of regular exercise? Lack of time and motivation often arise as the main culprits, along with other excuses like hating exercise, being too tired, the shortness of life, the expenses associated with fitness and many others. Luckily, all of these barriers can be overcome.

Here are a few of the main culprits that get in the way of daily exercise routines and how to overcome them:

Culprit: You are “too busy.”

Solution: One way to overcome this barrier is by simplifying your exercise routine. The best exercise routine is one that you can sustain and fit into your schedule, so pick a form of exercise that will work with your life. If you work a 9-5 job, take a break on each hour mark to do a few sets of push-ups and squats. If you only have 20 minutes in the morning, do sprints, jump rope, or another form of high-intensity training. 

Culprit: You hate working out.

Solution: Often, when people say that they hate exercise, they mean that they hate running or lifting weights. However, these activities are only a few examples of ways that someone can exercise. Find a mode of physical activity that you enjoy. This may be hacky sacking, playing pickleball, biking, practicing yoga, or a number of other activities. Choose a form of exercise that makes you happy, do it consistently and reap the rewards. 

Culprit: Fitness is expensive.

Solution: Granted, some forms of exercise and physical activity can be pricey. Some gyms charge membership fees that could bail out banks (OK, not quite, but maybe close). Many forms of exercise, however, require zero to little equipment at all. Running, swimming, jump rope and calisthenics are all great examples of exercise that require almost no financial investment. If money is an issue for you, worry no more. There are plenty of ways to build a fulfilling exercise routine with almost zero financial investment. 

Stop reading this post immediately! Go outside, to your nearest gym, or to a nearby park and start reaping the rewards of exercise. Your future self will thank you.

A version of this article was published by The Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.


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