For a long time we’ve exercised for our physique. But studies are showing more and more the mind-blowing benefits exercise has on our brains.
Ever since I can remember, people have been motivated to exercise out of a desire to look good. We know being fit is associated with overall good health, but for a long time, the main thing that has gotten us off the couch and moving has been the vision of our dream body: the six-pack, the thigh gap, the lean legs . . . whatever your goal is. But a shift is happening in how people are thinking about exercise. Rather than it being solely about our physical appearance, people are becoming aware of its incredible benefits on our brains.
Back in the day, we didn’t hear Jane Fonda in her striped and belted leotard yelling at us to move our bodies for clarity of mind. Instead, we heard things like, “That’s right, get sexy,” and were told, “A big mirror to exercise in front of is essential.” None of us who fell for the Ab Swing on the television commercials were thinking about improving our anxiety. Neither were we putting pictures of models running on the beach on our vision boards because we thought they would inspire us to do something to lower our chances of developing Alzheimer’s.
Let’s get one thing straight: the desire to want to look good is not a bad thing. But we run into problems when we participate in exercise only for our appearance. The reality is that many people never come face-to-face with their dream body. Despite your efforts, have you? With the media constantly presenting beautiful people in front of us, it’s nearly impossible not to pick ourselves apart and wish some part of us looked better. We are set up for disappointment and conditioned to be dissatisfied with our appearance, which works great for an industry that thrives off weight-loss products, supplements, health foods, gym memberships and diet programs.
For some, constant exercise becomes a slap in the face because it doesn’t produce their desired results. Others exercise out of guilt or shame after eating something contrary to their diet plan. Many get discouraged that their hard work isn’t paying off and stop caring for themselves altogether, saying, “It just doesn’t work for me.”
But there are many benefits we get from exercise that have been undermined by our fixation on our appearance. Studies show that exercise is one of the most transformative things we can do to improve cognitive abilities. It improves focus, increases creativity, enhances memory, improves learning, improves reasoning, reduces depression and anxiety, and boosts mood.
According to the Nutraceutical Business Review, stress and sleep have been the fastest-growing global food supplement categories for the second year in a row, increasing by approximately 60 per cent in the past two years. Adaptogen herbs, medicinal mushrooms, CBD mints, and sleep gummies containing magnesium and melatonin have been selling like hotcakes. This highlights that, as a culture, we’ve got problems when it comes to stress, anxiety and sleeping disorders. The fact we have supplements and medications that can help is amazing, but they will fail us if we rely on them alone.
In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John J Ratey says, “At every level, from the microcellular to the psychological, exercise not only wards off the ill effects of chronic stress; it can also reverse them. Studies show that if researchers exercise rats that have been chronically stressed, that activity makes the hippocampus grow back to its pre-shrivelled state. The mechanisms by which exercise changes how we think and feel are so much more effective than donuts, medicines, and wine. When you say you feel less stressed out after you go for a swim, or even a fast walk, you are.”
Essentially, Ratey is saying that exercise is one of the best ways to manage and reduce stress. It’s no coincidence we feel better after a good workout. Moving our bodies raises chemicals in the brain, such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline and oxytocin. These all produce feelings of pleasure and benefit us in a whole host of ways. As Ratey puts it, “Exercise is medicine.”
Physical movement also boosts the brain’s natural antidepressants. It triggers the release of chemicals in the brain that promote a more balanced and relaxed mood. For those who are experiencing depression or anxiety, regular physical exercise can result in improvement as effective as medication but without the side effects and costs. A review published in 2022 found that two-and-a-half hours a week of brisk walking was related to a 25 per cent lower risk of depression. Even if you have no symptoms of anxiety or depression, regular exercise is extremely beneficial to the body and mind of young, old, healthy and ailing people. It translates into significant mental advantages, sometimes even bringing out better results than counselling and therapy.
Thinking about our cognition, Ratey says, “Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimise your brain function.” Regular exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, the parts of your brain involved in memory and learning and the areas susceptible to diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. “During exercise, [the hormones needed for learning and brain growth] push through the blood-brain barrier, a web of capillaries with tightly packed cells that screen out bulky intruders such as bacteria,” he says. Meaning, we need to get our blood pumping and our heart rate up so our brains get the hormones they need for alertness, motivation, logging new information and developing new cells. Just one workout can improve your ability to focus, giving you immediate benefits that last for at least two hours after 30 minutes of exercise.
When we have such high standards about our appearance, exercise can become an unsustainable means to an end. Fixating on how you look can easily result in burning yourself out with exercise and not nourishing your body with enough food.
But when we understand the benefits it has on our happiness and wellbeing, we can create healthy habits and realistic benchmarks. We remove the chance of failure and shame because with exercise, you really can’t lose. You get benefits if you do it once, and you get even more benefits if you do it consistently.
Exercise won’t completely cure you and antidepressants and therapy aren’t a scam. Your worries won’t disappear after you go for a walk, and you won’t become a genius after a session at the gym. But studies show the effects of exercise on the brain are far more astounding than we thought.
So, make exercise a daily habit and keep it at the top of your priorities . . . for the sake of your brain! One day you might wake up and see that Baywatch body looking back at you in the mirror. But even if you don’t, you’ll be in a healthier headspace and you might be able to keep putting on that red swimsuit in your old age—maybe not looking exactly how you imagined, but happy with who you are and glad to be alive anyway.
We must remember that God gave us these bodies for our joy and movement to contribute to our health and happiness. When we’re in a healthier body, our mindset will be more positive too. The long-term benefits and the good physique are icing on the cake.
Zanita Fletcher is a life coach, writer, and an assistant editor for Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand. She writes from the Gold Coast, Queensland. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.