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Everyone thinks about exercise as a way to lose weight, look better and feel stronger, and while that’s true, that’s only a small part of why you should start logging some gym-time.
A growing body of evidence shows fitness can boost your mental well-being, improve heart health, jumpstart your metabolism and so much more. “It’s amazing what exercise can do—it really is like a magic pill,” says John J. Ratey, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry and author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” Check out these nine reasons to get moving.
1. It makes you smarter
Workouts from 10 to 40 minutes can lead to an immediate boost in mental focus, research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows. “When you exercise your muscles, the muscles grow, and now we’re realizing the same thing happens to the brain,” says Ratey. In addition to boosting blood flow to the brain, exercise may put stress on brain cells that stimulate growth. “The only way we learn anything is for our brain cells to grow at a cellular level, and exercise provides the optimal environment for that,” says Ratey. “It turns on your ‘thinking’ brain, so you’re able to bring information in more quickly, make better associations and evaluations — all those things are improved.” Even better: Research shows physical activity increases the volume of the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for memory and spatial reasoning, possibly reducing your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
2. It slays emotional stress
Moderate physical activity can help you cope with anxiety and stress long after the workout is over, according to a study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. “Like taking a little bit of Prozac or Zoloft, exercise is a natural SSRI, increasing serotonin and other neurotransmitters that have anti-stress effects,” says Ratey. “Plus, over time, the brain changes that come with exercise help you become more resilient to stress.” That means things that used to leave you feeling frazzled may not; it takes higher levels of stress to push your buttons.
3. It makes you happier
Exercise can be as effective at treating mental health issues as common antidepressants, according to meta-analysis published in Clinical Psychology Science and Practice. “We used to think that the ‘runner’s high’ was the result of endorphins, but there’s more to it,” says Ratey. “The release of other natural chemicals in the body, like endocannabinoids, may play a bigger role in helping you feel pleasure and satisfaction after exercise.”
4. It lowers cancer risk
Research shows physical activity decreases the risk for colon and endometrial cancer risk by up to 40 percent and breast cancer by as much as 80 percent. The American Cancer Society recommends exercise most days for at least 30 minutes – or 150 minutes a week, to reap the cancer-preventing benefits.
5. It protects your heart
Regularly getting your blood pumping has been shown to reduce blood pressure and bad cholesterol plus improve vascular function and lower your risk for heart disease. “Your workout routine can play a significant role in preventing heart disease and stroke, which are leading causes of death in our country,” says Shaina Young, a personal trainer and yoga instructor at Evanston Athletic Club. “It doesn’t take a tremendous amount: just 30 minutes, five days a week, which can be a 15-minute walk in the morning and another 15-minute walk on your lunch break or in the evening.”
6. It builds self-esteem
Men who are fit and physically active feel more prepared to tackle their workload, according to a study from the University of Turku in Finland. What’s more, regular exercise can improve body image, regardless of weight, a study in Psychology & Health finds. “Exercise helps you become more in tune with your body and makes you appreciate it more,” explains Young. As you exercise and see improvement, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Reaching those physical goals leads to a sense of accomplishment, she adds.
7. It can help your sex life
All that exercise-induced self-confidence can pay off in the bedroom. Physically fit men and women rate their sexual desirability higher than those who are less active, according to a study from the University of Arkansas.
8. It can help you sleep better
Men and women who logged moderate to intense physical activity for 150 minutes a week reported a 65 percent improvement in sleep quality and reported feeling less sleepy during the day, finds a study from Oregon State University. “If you expend energy through exercise, your body will feel physically tired, making it easier to fall asleep,” says Young. “Meditation, yoga, and physical exercise all change our brain chemistry, too, so it’s easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.”
9. It keeps your metabolism humming
Weightlifters are less likely to have metabolic syndrome than non-lifters, a study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows. Metabolic syndrome is defined by high glucose levels, high blood pressure and abdominal fat, and it increases the risk for diabetes and heart disease. “Metabolic rate naturally decreases with age, which is why people tend to gain weight as they get older,” says Young. Fortunately, the right exercise prevents weight creep. “Muscle at rest is metabolically active, so weight-bearing exercises that help maintain muscular strength like Pilates, yoga or weightlifting help increase metabolic rate and protect metabolic health,” she says. Just be sure to set realistic expectations. “Start by telling yourself to pencil in 30 minutes of exercise twice a week for four weeks. Even divide it into two sessions at different times,” says Young. “The hardest part is getting started but once you see what’s possible after four weeks, you’ll want to keep going.”
—Kelly Rowe for Chicago Athletic Clubs
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