The physical benefits of exercise are obvious. Exercise in fact is all about the physical benefits – increased strength, fitness, speed and power as well as aesthetic appeal. However, what is also greatly affected by exercise is the mind, and there are just as many psychological benefits of exercise to consider. Exercise is good for both the body and the mind.
The psychological benefits of exercise work in many ways, but the first and most obvious is the way in which exercise causes the immediate release of hormones. Specifically training causes the release of endorphins which are feel good hormones that leave you feeling calm, energised and optimistic. It is endorphins that are responsible for the so called ‘runners high’ and also one of the reasons that exercise can be addictive as you try and recreate this high. Endorphins block the feelings of pain and create feelings of euphoria by attaching to receptors on the outer surfaces of brain cells. The receptors that are responsive to endorphins are actually the same as those for many recreational drugs making endorphins the brain’s very own marijuana meaning the psychological benefits of exercise are the same but without the negative side effects such as marijuana and brain damage.
Part of the reason for this bodily response is that endorphins are designed to be produced during times to stress – to help us run and fight through pain and injury (like adrenaline). This means that when we exercise today our brain interprets it as the body being under stress and needing you to remain calm, happy and pain free to perform. This makes exercise a great way to deal with daily troubles and while addiction is possible… what are the downsides to being addicted to staying healthy?? If you are feeling low, lethargic or unmotivated, then a quick workout can help get you back on form. Furthermore, regular exercise might help your ‘base level’ of hormones to be more positive and euphoric making it a great natural antidepressant.
Other psychological benefits of exercise revolve around the way in which it improves IQ and overall cognitive function. It has been shown that regular cardiovascular activity can help improve our short term memory which in turn helps us with non verbal reasoning and maths tasks – improving our ‘fluid intelligence’ (intelligence which doesn’t require previous knowledge). One study of mice showed that regular treadmill exercise prevented ‘ischemia-induced apoptotic neuronal cell death’ in the dentate gyrus – basically meaning it prevented the deterioration of brain cells in a critical part of the brain.
Furthermore, exercise has been shown to actually lead to the birth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is an area of the brain which is highly involved in creating and retrieving memories, but until recently neurogensis (the technical term for the birth of cells) was thought not to occur in humans. The fact that neurogenesis leads to the birth of new neurons in this area of the brain however supports even more the idea that regular exercise can improve a bodybuilder or gym-goer’s IQ.
Many writers will carelessly describe the brain as a muscle which can be trained, but while the brain is in no way a muscle, it certainly can be trained to grow in the same way. Neurogenesis in the hippocampus is just one example of how use causes the brain to change shape. This capability is a fairly recently discovered phenomenon known as ‘brain plasticity’ and suggests that your brain is being tragically underused unless you are training it.
In sports people brain plasticity is most prominent as it changes in accordance with their practice. In particular this occurs in the motor cortex of the brain which is responsible for sending signals to the limbs. It’s also apparent in the speed of neuronal connections and in the areas responsible for perception such as the occipital lobe (at the back of the brain and involved in sight). By repeatedly training a movement you increase the neuronal networks involved and so grow that area of the brain. In other words then exercise can improve your reactions and your spatial awareness on top of your mood and IQ.
Another way that exercise changes your brain is in the way it causes your pituitary gland to produce more testosterone. Testosterone is known as the ‘male hormone’ and has many many benefits both physical and psychological. These aren’t just useful for men either and can help anyone to feel more optimistic, driven, ambitious and confident. Personally this proved enough of an incentive to continue taking testosterone boosting supplements even though their muscle-building properties proved fairly limited. On top of these psychological benefits of exercise through testosterone, it will also increase muscle mass and sex drive and performance.
Those are the ways in which exercise benefits our psychology by directly affecting the chemistry and structure of the brain. Through the secretion of extra hormones and the birth and strengthening of neurons and synapses (connections between neurons) exercise increases your memory, IQ, mood, ambition, reactions, hand-eye coordination and more. There are many more psychological benefits of exercise however that work in a more round about way.
Obviously exercise makes you fitter. Well it does if you’re doing it right anyway. This obviously has psychological benefits through the way people treat you and through the way you feel in yourself. Firstly, being strong and fit looks good. If you are overweight or skinny you may feel as though others are judging you, but when your nothing but muscle and veins you can feel people looking at you for different reasons. People automatically respond to you better and you’re more likely to get positive attention from the opposite sex.
Being strong instantly gives you more authority and credibility. If you have broad shoulders and a large chest you simply take up more physical space and are so more imposing. This will mean that others are more likely to listen to you when you speak and more likely to take what you say on bored. Looking strong and fit has for this reason been shown to lead to higher salaries and people rating you as more intelligent and a more trust worthy character. Obviously the way this affects your life will contribute to the psychological benefits of exercise.
The way looking healthier and stronger affects the opposite sex is that it advertises you as being made of better genetic material. It shows that you have the ability to build muscle and have a fast metabolism. It suggests high testosterone, a competitive and driven nature and if you’re a man it will also make women feel as though you can protect them. This means that when you’re in a bar or club chatting to someone you fancy, you can feel confident and proud. This will help your chances further too as everyone’s attracted to confidence. And the psychological benefits of regular sex and a good love life I’m sure I don’t need to list here…
And the reason women will think you can protect them better is because… well you can. If you’re in good shape and you have better than average strength then you can walk the streets at night and feel as though you can handle yourself if you come across potential attackers. This is a great benefit for both men and women and gives you an even greater sense of confidence.
So simply being in shape will win you love, success and respect, but furthermore the act of going to the gym in itself will also contribute to the psychological benefits of exercise. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said that bodybuilding had taught him everything he ever needed to know, and while this probably isn’t literally true (English anyone?), I certainly know where he was coming from.
What working out teaches you is that you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it. You’re in the gym and you’re an 8 stone weakling – but you set your mind to being stronger and over time you’re a 13 stone behemoth. You’re trapped beneath a 120kg barbell and you’ve done 10 reps. You only set out to do 10 but suddenly you get the inspiration to do more and before you know it you’ve completed 15 reps on the bench press.
If you take this attitude into the ‘real world’, seeing obstacles as challenges and realising that you can improve yourself in every way to deal with every new challenge as it comes, then you will become psychologically unstoppable. You train your muscles to become harder by subjecting them to repeated hardship and you can do the same with your outlook on life. This is what stands out among the many many psychological benefits of exercise.