We Exercise for All the Wrong Reasons

You see them everywhere… Every magazine, every billboard, every TV commercial, every banner ad on your computer screen… They are all telling you and selling you the fast and easy way to get fit. To get shredded. To get a 6-pack. To get the perfect J-Lo/Kim Kardashian/Beyoncé butt. Everywhere we turn, we are sold exercise as a way of achieving the impossible goal of the perfect body. And I say impossible, because even the friends of mine who have achieved objectively toned bodies still complain about their looks too! Turns out, being a size two is not the magic pill to body satisfaction.  

But what if we thought of exercise as a means to a different type of end? What if we saw working out not as step toward weight loss, but as an enduring investment in our mental health and capabilities?

At a basic level, many of us know that physical exercise sparks a handful of positive things in our brain thanks to endorphins. Endorphins are neurochemicals that can act as a natural analgesic (pain killer), and can leave us with an overall positive feeling (responsible for the “runner’s high”). Moreover, exercise can also stimulate important neural growth factors that have been linked to improvements in memory and cognition! But the benefits actually don’t stop at the micro-level.

In a recent psychiatric study involving over 1.2 million subjects (!), researchers found that individuals who exercised regularly had 43% fewer “poor mental health days” per month than individuals who did not regularly exercise. And interestingly, what qualified as exercise in this study was actually pretty lenient! People who reported moderately vigorous housework as their exercise still reported the mental health benefits of regular physical activity! As it turns out, it’s not exactly the type of exercise that is key, but the timing and the setting.

Evidently, the ideal work-out length for those mental health benefits is about 45 minutes; any more than that in a single sitting and the cognitive benefits plateau. In addition, those great mental benefits are given an extra boost if the work-out involves some sort of social and/or mindfulness element! For example, work-outs like yoga and tai chi, and well as group exercises like Zumba and water aerobics added great benefits of positive social interaction and mindfulness training!

I personally love studies like these because they are working to shift the existent dialogue around exercise as a necessary chore for a “hot” body. Physical activity can be fun and healing and rejuvenating and mentally fulfilling, if we choose to see it that way. When we view it through the lens of mental health care, we can rid ourselves of the unnecessary guilt and shame that is inherently tied to the conversations we have (both externally and internally) about our “imperfect” bodies.  So next time the urge strikes you, step on that treadmill, or that basketball court, or that yoga mat, with the confidence that you are investing in your own memory, your own cognitive abilities, and your own happiness.  I’ll take that feeling over a 6-pack any day of the week. 

Written by Helena Lorenz

Heights Family Counseling Clinical Intake Specialist