We often talk about exercise in regards to calorie-burn or “toning up”: gyms promise results using “before” and “after” pictures, the #fitspo hashtag on Instagram is full of women who generally all look the same, and fitness watches track how many calories are burned while we’re on a run or in a workout class. Frankly, I’m over it. The body receives so many more benefits from exercise than just looking a certain way. Reducing something as powerful as exercise to be worth nothing more than a tool to burn calories and fit into a pant size is doing us all a disservice. Forget about weight loss: these eight benefits of exercise are about to give you some serious workout motivation.
1. To boost mood
If you’ve ever left a workout class feeling like you can take on the world, or a bad day seems to totally turn around after going on a run, you already know this one. The mood boost you feel after exercise doesn’t just come from a motivating instructor or crazy-good playlist (although those things help): it’s biological. “Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that help you to feel happier, more relaxed, and less anxious,” explained Dr. Kristin Hughes MD, a board-certified emergency medicine physician and concierge health strategist.
“Exercise regulates mood because it helps the body move from ‘fight-or-flight’ mode to ‘rest-and-digest mode,'” agreed Martha Munroe M.Sc., a certified personal trainer. “Emotions are physiological, so movement can help get us from stressed to calm. Physical activity is correlated with better psychological wellbeing and positivity, as well as better body confidence.” In other words, moving the body can help boost mood in many ways. Exercise releases happy hormones like endorphins to trigger positive feelings and can also help you calm down when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Besides just an overall mood boost, exercise can also improve the way you feel about yourself (totally unrelated to a number on a scale).
2. To prevent lower back injuries
Lower back pain might not be the sexiest topic, but this area is important for so many different functions in the body. “Nerves from the low back control everything from bowel function to muscle coordination, as well as sensation and strength in the lower extremities,” said Dr. Jenifer Epstein DC, a chiropractor based in Pennsylvania. In other words, lower back injuries can mean more than just pain.
Dr. Epstein explained that working on core strength is crucial to lower back pain or injury prevention because strengthening the area takes harmful pressure off of the back. While you may know to do ab exercises like crunches to work the ol’ six-pack, the good news is that the core is stimulated during many movements, even if they’re not “targeting” the area. For example, any movement that requires balance works the ab muscles. Also, think about engaging the core in every exercise or movement you do for extra strengthening.
3. To improve focus and energy
If you find yourself reaching for a third cup of coffee or feel an afternoon slump coming on, you’re going to want to listen to this: Saara Haapanen, BSc, MSc, a personal trainer based in Denver, created the “Move at Work Challenge” to get people to move more during their workday for just 5-7 minutes, and then studied the results. Out of a survey of hundreds of people, she found that 65 percent experienced increased energy and 100 percent experienced improved focus. Turns out a yoga flow might be better than a cup of coffee or a nap when it comes to improving focus and increasing energy. To maximize the benefits, take a break to go for a walk if you start to feel your energy dip during the workday, or fit in a workout before working on a project instead of after.
4. To help you sleep
While it may sound counterintuitive since exercise can increase energy, one of the many perks of exercising during the day is that you might sleep better at night. “Exercising for even just 20 minutes a day will improve your sleep cycles,” suggested Kenzie Mariano, a personal trainer and fitness expert. According to The Sleep Foundation, moderate to intense exercise (meaning anywhere between a brisk walk and sprinting) improves sleep quality in adults because it can help decrease the amount of time it takes for you to fall asleep. However, if you exercise too late at night, you might wake up the body and have difficulty sleeping. To find the time of the day that will best help your sleep, experiment with workouts during different times (like early morning, mid-afternoon, or right after work) and notice how your sleep quality changes.
5. To help (or prevent) chronic pain
Many of us focus on calorie-counting or the number on the scale to measure health while simultaneously ignoring an ankle injury or chronic back pain. In reality, how you feel is way more important than how you look when measuring health (and everything else, while we’re at it). One of the biggest reasons to work out? It helps your body feel its best because it can help prevent chronic pain from coming.
“Exercise is often a prescribed treatment for pain,” explained Beret Kirkeby, certified yoga therapist, licensed massage therapist, and owner of Body Mechanics Orthopedic Massage in NYC. “For many people who battle chronic pain, moving is the best management tool they have access to.” While exercise is beneficial for prevention, if you do have chronic pain, always work with a doctor to form a plan that won’t overly stress the body (which can make pain worse). Also, make sure you have good form (incorrect form can cause injuries instead of preventing them) by checking with a trainer, instructor, or doctor.
6. To boost creativity
Constantly getting hit with a case of writer’s block or stuck in a rut on a work project? Grab your sneakers and get moving. “Because the hippocampus is also responsible for creative thinking, when we work out, we are more creative,” explained Cathy Spencer-Browning, the VP of Training and Programming at MOSSA. In other words, the same part of the mind connected with mood (see point #1) is also connected to creativity.
Spencer-Browning also noted a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that showed regular exercisers performed much better on creative tests than their sedentary peers. “Exercising regularly may act as a cognitive enhancer, promoting creativity,” said Lorenzo Calzato, the study’s researcher. While you might feel a little jolt in inspiration after one workout (thanks to all those mood-boosting benefits!), try exercising more regularly for long-term improvement in overall creativity.
7. To increase longevity
So we know that exercise is just plain good for us (and for even more than just the points already mentioned). But what does “good for us” mean, and how do we measure it? Many experts use the word “longevity” to not only refer to lifespan, but to describe how healthy we are as we age. I’d argue that the main goal of whatever we do for our health now is to keep us healthy in the years to come. One of the biggest things we can do now? You guessed it—exercise. “Being active might lower the risk of chronic diseases as we age and can generally increase our quality of life when we do get to an advanced age,” said Phung D. Tran, an ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist.
Dr. Hughes agreed that exercise is important for overall longevity and a healthy life, explaining that while we build up muscle mass when we’re younger (and throughout our lives), it can slow bone loss as we age. Bottom line: exercise can help us live better—not just right now, but for our whole lives. Think of each workout like investing in your future self: consistently building strength and endurance as you get older will help you maintain mobility throughout your life. “Exercise is needed to maintain the functional integrity of the cardiovascular system, muscles, bones, and ligaments. Exercise is a powerful intervention that helps in healthy aging,” explained Dr. Rashmi Byakodi MD.
8. To improve other areas of your life
Exercise can impact more than just your physical body (what can’t it do!?). When you keep a consistent and fulfilling workout routine, you start to see the effects bleed into other areas of your life as well. “The discipline that comes with exercise (like sticking to a routine or committing to a workout) shows up in other areas of life too,” explained Patricia Johnson, a fitness expert, cyclist, trainer, and owner of Pedal Lovers. “If you can lift weights three times a week or go for a bike ride every day, other goals like drinking more water or eating healthier are often easier.”
Exercise can work like a snowball effect: once you do one thing for your body, you start to crave other things as well, whether that’s a plant-focused meal instead of fast food or a self-care routine instead of working an extra hour. Working out can also affect your confidence levels and the way you see yourself. “People who work out consistently are communicating to themselves and the world how they want to be treated,” said Melanie Shmois, a cognitive behavioral therapist and CEO of Mind Your Strength Coaching. When you prioritize a workout, that means you prioritize your well-being. And when you care for, prioritize, and show up for your body? You begin to love it. BRB about to go do some squats now!
Please consult a doctor before beginning any treatments or routines. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.