The desire to look better might be the reason many of us start working out, but it isn’t the reason we keep at it. Just ask anyone who’s been exercising for years: vanity alone is not enough to sustain a long-term love of fitness. After all, once you’ve achieved the ends you desired — trimmed down, toned up, or whatever aesthetic goal you set out for yourself — then what? What’s left to motivate you when you have exactly what you wanted?
The answer: not much. Think of all the people who manage to stick to an exercise routine to get in shape for some special event, like a wedding, but then drop the regime after, losing all their hard-won gains and more often than not, piling back on the unwanted pounds. Sure, a little healthy narcissism can be enough to spark a relationship with fitness, but like any relationship, it can’t be founded on looks alone.
What keeps people motivated to exercise for the long-haul revolves around this simple truth: exercise makes us feel better. Mentally, physically and spiritually, regular exercise is a panacea for just about anything that ails us, and this — this levity of mind, body and soul — is what drives people to continue exercising.
In fact, exercise is one of the most commonly prescribed treatments for people suffering from a range of mental and physical diseases and disorders, ranging from depression and anxiety, to PCOS and chronic pain syndrome to a range of stress related (and stress induced) ailments. It’s one of the most prescribed treatments, and sadly, also one of the most ignored. Life gets busy, and making time to incorporate regular exercise can fall by the wayside.
However, the benefits of exercise cannot be ignored. In fact, studies show that people with mental health problems who engage in regular physical activity report feeling better than those who treat their disorders with medication alone.
How does it work? One way is that exercise promotes brain health, increasing our heart rates and thereby sending more O2 rich blood into our brains, effectively oxygenating brain cells and promoting healthy cell regrowth. The end result is more robust brain power, and more balanced hormones — and this means better mental health.
So exercise undeniably works to bolster our moods and our brains, but what kind of exercise works best? There is no single answer to this question. All exercise can give you these feel-good results. However, some types of exercise work better than others to combat certain types of diseases or disorders.
While the terms ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Stress is what we feel in response to an existing threatening situation. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a response to this stress: a fear or worrying that continues after the stressor is gone.
Studies show that any exercise will help battle these mental health blues, but one of the best exercises for chronic stress and anxiety is aerobic activity (i.e. walking, running, hiking, biking, swimming). Aerobic activity will keep your heart rate in the aerobic zone — the zone in which the oxygen you breath while exercising provides your muscles with the fuel to move.
Aerobic activities don’t tax your body as much as anaerobic activity (like HIIT or any interval training), which requires you to push your body to the point where the oxygen you are taking in is not enough to fuel your muscles, and it must instead draw on stored glycogen to propel movement. In other words, if you’ve been operating in a constant state of stress and anxiety, a lower intensity option is the best way to slow-down the hyperdrive and restore balance to your bod.
Depression is an ugly monster, and it often manifests itself in total lethargy and apathy. This is why the ultimate way to wage war against this beast is by heading into beast mode yourself with some high-intensity interval training. Not only will HIIT help boost your mood after you’re done, but the prospect of doing just a few minutes of exercise is more palpable to a person suffering from a severe lack of energy. Ask someone who’s depressed to drag their butt out for an hour long walk or run, or to go to a yoga class and you’re probably going to be met with derision, but ask them to do 12 minutes of HIIT from home a few times a week, and they’ll probably do it. It’s less time, and doesn’t require them to muster the energy to leave the house.
This is because, like all exercise, interval training significantly improves mood. In fact, a study conducted by University of Turku in Finland discovered that HIIT increases the body's release of endorphins to the brain more than moderate-intensity exercise. What’s even more interesting is that the parts of the brain that got hit the hardest with these feel-good endorphins were the parts that regulate pain and emotions.
So, if you’re feeling down, then HIIT it up. Of course, any physical activity will be beneficial, but interval training will give you the best results, in the least amount of time.
First off, if you have chronic pain or an injury, you should talk to your health care professional before beginning any exercise regime. The nature of pain and injury are too intricate and personalized for us to make a grand gesture of recommendation that would safely apply to everyone. This said, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a medical professional who’ll tell you that doing some kind of yoga isn’t beneficial to relieve pain and elevate mood.
Yoga is gentle enough to be used by anyone, of any fitness level. The deep breathing and slow movements of the practice will help oxygenate your blood (which will carry more O2 infused blood to your brain and bolster your mood and focus), while also stretching your muscles, joints and ligaments, alleviating existing pain and helping to prevent further injury.
Exercise can do so much more than make you look more taut and toned: it can — and will — help you live a better, happier and more confident life. It’s this increased quality of life that will turn a reluctant date with your weights into a full-blown, lifelong love affair.
And unlike exercising to solely with the aim of losing weight and/or building muscle, which can take weeks and months to see, if you start exercising to feel good, you’ll see results right away.
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