For me, fitness is not just about hitting the gym; it is also about an inner happiness and an overall well-being.
When I was seventeen, I spent six months as an exchange student in America. I lived with two host sisters, one of whom went to the gym every day.
Whenever she was about to leave the house, I would wish her a good workout.
Every single time, she would give me an odd look and reply, “You don’t work out because you enjoy it,” as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Eventually, I realised what she meant. She only went to the gym because she was scared of gaining weight. Her main goal was to burn calories, so she ran on a treadmill for half an hour, counting the seconds until it was over.
Raise your hand if that’s you or has been you at some point in your life.
You can’t see me, but I’m raising mine.
We live in a culture obsessed with losing weight, mainly for aesthetic purposes. When someone dares to say they genuinely like exercise, they get made fun of.
But what can working out do for you besides weight loss and maintenance?
In this article, I’m going to explore three benefits that go beyond these usual suspects.
Benefit #1 – Stress Relief
Across the world, work appears to be an increasingly common source of stress, depression, and anxiety. For example, according to a survey conducted in the UK, 595,000 people suffered from these issues between 2017 and 2018.
We tend to believe that stress is the problem, when it’s actually a natural part of life. When we are subjected to a stressor, whether physical or mental, we adapt to be able to resist to it.
For example, squatting with a loaded barbell on your back creates stress. However, if you use a weight that’s challenging but not impossible to lift, you will be able to handle the stress and perhaps squat more weight in the next session.
Dealing with a difficult situation at work produces psychological rather than physical stress, but the process is the same. Managing the situation may be hard, yet it makes you stronger, so in the future you may be able to deal with even more complicated issues while experiencing the same amount of stress.
However, when the stressor is excessive or when we accumulate too much total stress, we can’t sustain it anymore. That’s when it becomes a problem.
For instance, you might try to squat your 1RM for 12 repetitions or to lift your 1RM for a single rep after six fatiguing sets. In either case, if the physical stress were above and beyond what you can currently manage, you would fail the attempt.
Using the same analogy as before, this would be equal to either having an argument with your boss or committing to a new task when you already have plenty on your to do list.
An excessive stressor is often impossible to predict. Moreover, if we were to avoid all stressors for fear that one could be too much, we would never grow. Therefore running into a bigger obstacle than we can overcome every now and then is inevitable.
On the other hand, stress accumulation could be prevented, but the very nature of most modern jobs often makes this an impossible task.
One important factor most modern jobs have in common is sedentarism, or the fact that we spend most of the day sitting at a desk.
And what can help us reduce stress and avoid a “stress avalanche” is the opposite: movement.
Moving lowers stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline while boosting the release of endorphins, the chemicals in the brain that makes us feel happier and more relaxed. It also helps us sleep better, which means we can focus more and for longer.
As a result, not only are we decreasing our stress levels, but we are also better equipped to overcome those stressors we do have to handle.
And there’s a reason why I’m using the word “movement.” It isn’t just regimented training that has these beneficial effects. Any activity that involves bodily movements can help, from gardening to vacuuming the floor.
As little as five to ten minutes can make a difference. So, if you are too busy for a 30-minute walk or workout, why not break it down into three 10-minute chunks?
Alternatively, start with 10 minutes a day and build up from there.
In fact, according to the new ACSM guidelines for physical activity, any type of movement performed for any continuous length of time – even less than 10 minutes! – count towards your total recommended physical activity per week. So don’t get discouraged thinking that you must work out for an hour or it won’t be worth it.
The more you move, the better. And every little helps.
Benefit #2 – Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy
Of course, losing a bit of weight and looking a little better naked can make you feel good about yourself, but that is by no means the only way exercise improves your self-esteem.
When you first start a new training program, you might feel awkward doing the exercises and embarrassed because you can’t lift a lot of weight or run for a long time. However, as the weeks go by, your technique will improve, your load will go up, and you will be able to endure longer and longer sessions.
As a result, you will feel competent, accomplished, and confident that you can take on more and more challenging programs and exercises.
This belief in your ability to achieve goals is called self-efficacy.
And, if you believe you can achieve more, you are also more likely to try.
For example, when I first started lifting, I was training at home with a couple of dumbbells. At the time, I would have been scared of squatting with an empty barbell, which is 20kg (44lbs). My technique wasn’t great and my strength wasn’t adequate, but I also didn’t believe I could do it.
Fast-forward to two months later, when I moved to a different town and got a gym membership. After training for so long, even if only with dumbbells, I knew I could work hard and lift a lot heavier than when I’d started. Yes, I had built a foundation of strength and good form, but I also wasn’t scared of the barbell anymore.
The self-efficacy you gain from exercise can transfer to other areas of your life. In my case, that confidence boost was the kick in the pants I needed to decide to get into the fitness industry and become a freelancer, despite all the risks and hardships associated with it.
So one could say that self-efficacy created this article.
What could your own self-efficacy achieve?
Benefit #3 – General Health
There are countless of studies showing that physical activity benefits our overall health in a number of different ways:
Since we often associate exercise with the image of a young, sculpted body, we focus a little too much on short-term gratification, like a six pack, and not enough on the impact that physical activity can have on the rest of our lives.
This is risky whether you achieve the six pack or not.
If you do, you will eventually come to realise that it doesn’t make your life any better. Then you may get frustrated and abandon exercise altogether to go look for the next quick fix. (Spoiler alert: there isn’t one.)
If you don’t, you may feel like a failure and, again, abandon exercise because “you didn’t do it right.”
You shouldn’t exercise for a fleeting moment of self-satisfaction, but for a lifetime of wellness.
In Future Episodes:
What would be three things you could do right now, for free, to improve your current training? Tune in next week to find out!
What other benefits of exercise can you think of besides weight loss?
An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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