The “Freshman 15” is a thing for a lot of people – I was not an exception. Before college I never reserved much love for exercise, I did track for a few seasons but outside of practice I very rarely got my heart rate up. I started exercising in college to combat the 15 measly pounds I gained; despite my efforts it was years before I lost it. During this time, however, I discovered a million and one reasons why I enjoyed getting my sweat on – and none of them had anything to do with losing weight.
It drives me crazy when people exercise solely for the purpose of losing weight. That’s the wrong way to go about it. Weight loss is an extremely complicated process that cannot be simplified to just burning calories. Heading to the gym to simply weigh yourself on the way out is not a sustainable weight-loss approach. Weight loss is a long-term return-on-investment; it’s so much harder to get yourself to the gym if you’re not focused on at least a few short term benefits. I’m not saying that exercising won’t lead to weight loss, it very well may and probably will; but weight loss can’t be maintained unless your workout routine becomes part of your lifestyle, and to do that you need more than a number on a scale to keep you going.
So here are my top 6 reasons why I exercise that have nothing to do with weight loss. Exercise can drastically change your life in so many other ways, even if you’re not losing weight the way you want to be. I don’t care if you’re walking, running, swimming, hiking, gardening, biking, doing yoga, or a workout tape. If you make the following benefits your purposes for exercising, rather than weight loss, you’ll get immediate payback. And you’ll get this payback no matter what: no matter how fast you are, how long you’re out there, or what you’re doing. Just getting moving.
1. Reduce stress and anxiety, relax.
This is a popular reason why people exercise. Often times people who hit the gym, road, trail, or pool do it because they feel calmer afterwards. Exercise is a huge stress reliever in many different ways. Did you know that it actually burns the stress hormone? I’ve always imagined my stress melting away when I’m running – but that’s literally what it’s doing, it’s burning off. Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise can reverse stress induced depression by enhancing the body’s ability to deal with stress. Exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants. Physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. One study suggests that more is not necessarily better; low-intensity, short exercise stints do just as much for your stress levels as high-intensity workouts, if not more. You don’t have to be a star athlete to benefit from this! In fact, no matter how hard you’re working you’re likely to experience equal stress relief. In fact, just taking a 20 minute walk can have the same effect as a mild tranquilizer.
“The real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best, and in my view, this benefit of physical activity is far more important – and fascinating – than what it does for the body.”
– Dr. John J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
Exercising not only reduces stress, it actually increases happiness. The brain releases endorphins during exercise that trigger the release of endorphins and chemicals like norepinephrine that actually make you feel happier. Within just five minutes of your workout you can already feel it! If you aren’t experiencing this boost of happy when you exercise it’s probably because you’re working out too hard. If you hit the ground running, literally, to the point where you can’t talk when you’re moving (because it’s hard to breathe) then you’re delaying your dose of happiness by at least 30 minutes. If you need a mood-boost look no further than the pavement outside your door – and take it easy.
3. Be more confident
This one is huge for me. Exercise made me more confident in my ability to do things. As a kid and preteen I often avoided hard labor with my father and brothers, and hikes and excursions with my friends, under the illusion that I didn’t enjoy it – in reality I was just scared, afraid that my body would make a fool of me. More recently, farming and running taught me that my body is a tool, a vessel for achieving milestones. The simple act of exercising, of using your body, can convince you that you look better – regardless of fitness. You’ll feel proud of your body and what it has achieved, giving you a different perception of yourself. If I haven’t succeeded in convincing you, let Kelsey Raymond try.
4. Get outside
We’ve known that nature deficit disorder is a thing for a long time. Humans are animals: we’re meant to be outside, in nature (however you choose to define that word). Contact with the natural world reduces depression and boosts energy levels. All it takes is – get ready for it – 20 minutes to see an improvement! Are you seeing a pattern? I’m a huge advocate for getting your exercise routine in outside. My choice is always trail running. But it can be walking, swimming, or biking. Getting your heart rate up for a short period of time, in the presence of natural surroundings will have great impact on your mental health.
5. Age better
Aging is scary. It’s unpredictable and unavoidable. But did you know that regular exercise throughout your life and into your later years can drastically reduce your risk of developing some diseases and disabilities that threaten the elderly? Exercise keeps your body healthy and functioning, and it also keeps your brain up and running. Studies show that memory functions of the brain may be maintained or enhanced in people with higher levels of fitness. Some people are afraid that excessive exercise in younger years will cause joint and muscle pain for later years. In contrast, more and more studies are finding that low-moderate exercise, even running!, can be extremely beneficial in the aging process.
6. Get smarter, more creative
By now you get the point that running does some cool stuff to the brain. It creates chemicals that make you happier, improve your memory, and improve your self-confidence. But just to give exercise one more brain-improvement award – it can actually make you smarter. Children who exercise regularly have shown higher levels of intelligence. Regular exercise improves our cognitive skills, giving us the ability to think better. And, not only does it make us smarter, but exercise has the ability to increase our creative potential. I now understand why all my good ideas come to me on my runs…
There are so, so, so many reasons why we should exercise. These are just my favorite six – and the six that I think get over looked. But other reasons include lower risk of health problems like diabetes, strokes, and cardiovascular disease, the ability to fight addiction, and to improve social connections, to improve productivity, boost your immune system, increase your sex drive, keep you focused, fight back pain, etc., etc., etc.
All I ask is: the next time you hit the pavement, pool, gym, or trail give yourself two good reasons why you’re headed out there today – two good reasons that have nothing to do with your waistline. Exercise deserves to be valued and enjoyed, and I promise that these non-weight-focused reasons will help you achieve that. What you’ll get in return is guaranteed life improvement – can’t argue with that.