Many people who loathe exercise arguably feel that way because of how the activity has been marketed to them. For too long, exercise and weight loss have been indivisibly bound, leading many to fall into the comparison trap, experience shame or engage in negative self-talk.
But moving your body grants so much more than a fit figure or relief from the guilt of indulging in a “cheat meal.” Movement is self-improvement beyond the physical form.
None of this is to say I don’t fall victim to feeling absolute dread before a workout. Sometimes the process of lacing up my sneakers and clipping on my nerdy little running belt is beyond torturous, the beasts in my head questioning why I bother.
Sometimes my demons do get the best of me. But on the days I do choose exercise, I just about always feel better than when I started. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve begrudgingly worked out and felt worse after the fact (the count is one, and it was the time I was hit by a bike while on a run).
From easing symptoms of depression (in my case, clearing some of the dark clouds that appear on what was supposed to be a perfectly sunny day), to relieving stress to protecting the body from injury, so much good is reaped from exercise. I think the marketing department is long overdue for a new strategy, one that links physical activity with the bounty of goodness it can provide. Here are just some of those things to consider.
Working out can lower your stress levels
Exercise yields many mental health benefits, and stress reduction is certainly among them. Whether it’s a boxing session to relieve some pent-up anger or a yoga sequence to help you focus on the present, that physical activity will increase the production of neurohormones like norepinephrine, a chemical that moderates the brain’s stress response.
And it can be the antidote for anxiety
There’s a lot happening in the body when you choose to move. Some of that takes place in the brain, where chemicals are produced to fight the feelings that bring you down. Aerobic exercise in particular (any type of cardio that gets your blood flowing) has been shown to benefit mood disorders and generally improve anxiety.
Working out = happy feelings
Runner’s high, endorphins, the feels — whatever you want to call it, exercise is sure to bring it. Being active causes the brain to release feel-good chemicals that boost your mood; it’s the reason why you almost always feel better post-workout than when you started.
And it can improve self-confidence
Even if you don’t lose a single pound at the gym, exercise can make you feel better about yourself. Research shows that getting physical can boost feelings of self-esteem and improve self-image.
It may even enhance your sex life
Improved self-confidence can work wonders for your romantic world. But beyond that, research has found that men who maintain a regular exercise routine have improved erectile and sexual function.
Exercise offers a new way to explore
Seeing a city by bike or by sneaker is a completely different experience than traditional modes of travel. Running or biking in a new place lets you cover more ground while still letting you stop to smell the roses, so to speak. Even if it’s your own city, you’ll start to learn to navigate the roads more comfortably and notice things you might’ve missed by car. The only reason I know how to get around some of the most dizzying streets of New York City is because I’ve run them. Better yet, combining exercise with nature (even if that nature is a concrete jungle) amplifies exercise’s self esteem-boosting benefits.
Exercise can help you sleep better
A good night’s sleep makes everything better, and exercising can help you nab one. People sleep significantly better and feel more alert during their waking hours if they exercise for at least 150 minutes a week, according to research associated with the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
It can boost your productivity
Exercise is sort of like a gateway drug to getting stuff done: Once you muster up the energy and will for a workout, other tasks become more tolerable, too. Research shows that people who work exercise into their schedules are more productive and energized than their less active counterparts.
And your creativity
Even if it’s just a mid-day walk or skip, a bit of physical activity can enhance your creativity. If you’re stuck on a project or problem, consider a sweat session not a way to procrastinate, but your ticket through it.
Exercise can make you stronger and reduce your risk for injury
This one becomes increasingly important with age, and you know this to be true if you’ve ever pulled a back muscle doing the most mundane activity. It’s frustrating and sometimes debilitating, and the chances of it happening again can be greatly reduced with a well-rounded workout routine — especially one that incorporates strength-training. Exercise is also associated with increased longevity and lower risks for age-related diseases. Your joints and muscles benefit from an active lifestyle.
It can also keep your brain bright
If you haven’t yet noticed, the benefits of exercise are not just physical. Research shows that it can significantly benefit your cognitive function and even help improve your memory by increasing the production of cells in the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning.
And benefit your immune system
A sustained exercise habit helps slow down the changes that happen to the immune system over time, keeping you healthier for longer. This, in turn, reduces your risk for infection and keeps you from getting sick.
With exercise comes community
Even if your gym is closed for the foreseeable future, there’s much to be shared in the joys (and challenges) of working out. A new sport or walking trail expands your horizons and offers you something to share with others. Even online, thousands of communities will root for your goals and get into the nitty-gritty of gear and ice baths, if that’s something you’re after. Whenever I’m out for a run, I like to remember that I have something in common with every fellow runner I spot, no matter our paces.
This story is part of Don’t Sweat It, a HuffPost Life series on improving your relationship with fitness. We’re giving you a guide on the latest thinking on exercise and why we’ve been conditioned to hate it in the past. Mental health and body-positive fitness experts will offer guidance and show you how to find a routine that works for you. Find all of our coverage here.