Eight ways fitness benefits the mind and body – beyond losing weight or gaining muscle
A stronger heart and a sharper mind are just the beginning.
By: Mike Traber
Previously featured on the Future Blog
What is fitness? To most, it means going to the gym and going through the motions of a workout routine one set at a time. That’s one facet of how you can define fitness, but it’s far from the only one. In reality, exercise encompasses a much larger range of physical activities, ranging in extremes from walking to CrossFit, and can be as social as playing team sports or as solitary as a long bike ride.
Just as working some workouts into your daily routine doesn’t require a gym membership, there are more reasons to stick to a fitness routine than you might realize. Beyond any physical changes, you can see with the naked eye, exercising consistently can improve everything from how you approach life’s challenges to your lifespan itself, offering a greater sense of confidence and a chance to connect with others along the way.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at eight of the major, interconnected physical and mental benefits that come along with committing to fitness in whatever form it means to you. Whether you’re convincing yourself to take the first step and want to define your goal or you need an extra push on days when exercise feels like more trouble than it’s worth, keeping these in mind can help you summon a “why” for every workout.
1. Fitness can reduce the risk of disease
If health is wealth, then working out is the wisest long-term investment strategy there is. Thousands of studies demonstrate fitness’ role in lowering the risk of blood pressure, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and a host of other unpleasant conditions you’d rather live without.
How’s that work? While we often think of exercise’s impact in terms of muscle mass or weight loss, but the heart is a muscle, too. Just like any other muscle in the body can do the same amount of work with less effort as it gets stronger, working out gets your heart in shape and improves its ability to pump blood throughout your body. Because blood is responsible for carrying vitamins, minerals, proteins, and everything else your body needs to fuel up and function properly, that superior circulation has a cascading effect that kick starts other positive changes throughout your tissues and organs.
While the short-term gains you can see in the mirror or on the scale are worth celebrating, don’t forget that working out can positively impact both the quantity and quality of your years. So even if outward progress feels slow, know that your body is changing from within for the long haul.
2. Workouts are a long-lasting mood booster
If you’ve heard anything about the mental benefits of exercise, you’ve probably heard of the famed “endorphin rush”. Essentially, exercise pushes the body to release a flood of feel-good chemicals that can dull pain and create a sense of pleasure, in spite of how exhausted or sore you might be from your efforts. All it takes is one good workout to understand why this class of naturally-occurring chemicals’ name is literally just a shortened way of saying “endogenous morphine”.
Endorphins do more than just plaster a smile onto your sweaty face: over a longer period of time, they’ve been shown to help manage anxiety and reduce stress related to areas of life that otherwise have no connection with fitness, such as careers and relationships. In addition, releasing endorphins can help create a powerful sense of well-being. It would be a stretch to say that fitness alone has the power to manage symptoms of depression. But when coupled with effective treatment and other changes, adding some movement to your days can help restore a more favorable chemical balance in your brain.
Over the long term, the mood-boosting properties of consistent fitness can have positive physical impacts as well. Too much stress can affect everything from how well your immune system functions, to the quality of your sleep, to inflammation, to how quickly your body ages. Free your mind from stress by releasing those endorphins consistently, and your body will thank you.
3. Pumping iron pumps up productivity
It’s amazing how much more the mind can do when it isn’t weighed down by worry. Because your fitness efforts can help fight stress and anxiety, working out not only gives you the opportunity to feel your best, but think your best, too. With a clearer head, it’s easier to make better decisions more quickly. Details that might otherwise slip by an anxious mind come into focus. You’ll enjoy full access to your creative problem-solving skills, an asset in both daily life and even the most left-brained lines of work. It’s little wonder that studies have shown that people who engage in a regular fitness routine are often more productive at work due to the increase in mental clarity and focus.
And even though a commitment to fitness leaves a little less time in your day for everything else on your to-do list, freeing yourself from the shackles of stress actually creates more space and time to focus on what matters. That translates to working more efficiently, and even feeling eager to engage in more activities and take on more responsibilities. So just as working out is a commitment to your long-term health, the time you invest in exercise can end up paying for itself in eye-opening, mind-expanding ways before you know it.
4. Exercise lets you exude confidence
Though everyone has their own motivations for working out, the desire to look good through lost weight and/or added muscle is an incredibly common one. If that’s what gets you exercising, great! Wanting to like what you see in the mirror isn’t a sign of narcissism. With sufficient time and effort, it’s entirely possible to achieve the outward changes that can inspire a newfound sense of self-confidence.
What may end up surprising you is that the confidence you gain from working towards your fitness goals is far from skin-deep. Why? Because you know that you earned it. You were there every step of the way, doing something difficult that occasionally felt unpleasant or inconvenient over and over again until the effort that you put in paid off. No matter whether or not anyone else notices your hard work or the change it’s created, nobody can take away the confidence and pride that come with going after what you want and getting it.
Best of all, that powerful sense of internal motivation has a way of propelling you forward in the face of life’s other challenges. Whether it’s having the courage to ask for that promotion or to ask someone out, you’ll be armed with the knowledge that you are worthy of the things you want in life. When it comes time to take a leap of faith by launching a business or moving across the country, you’ll remember that you’re capable of stepping outside your comfort zone and working toward a goal even when your path might feel unclear. It might seem crazy to think that exercise can prepare you for some of life’s bigger moments, but it all makes sense once you’re armed with a well-earned sense of confidence.
5. You’ll never have to walk (or lift or play) alone
As mentioned, fitness encompasses a whole lot more than just silently doing cardio or lifting weights with your headphones in. Humans are inherently social creatures, and there are few better ways to forge a sense of belonging than by engaging in a common interest with others. When you sprinkle in an element of shared suffering (or at least something that gets the blood flowing), you have the stuff that strong social bonds are made of. It’s why CrossFit may look like a cult to outsiders, but its adherents see a community of motivated people pushing each other. It’s also why you’ll find intramural sports leagues in any major city — and why most of them have at least one story about strangers who meet as teammates and end up marrying each other.
Regardless of whether you go on walks with friends, join a biking club, play team sports, or meet a lifting partner at your local gym, mixing socialization with sweat has definite benefits. Group exercise can function as a regular time to catch up with friends, create a sense of belonging in a community, and even enrich your life through contact with people outside your existing social bubble.
Just like those endorphins, exercising with others can create a virtuous cycle that not only keeps you coming back, but keeps you progressing consistently. Whether through encouraging words or a little friendly competition, teaming up to get fit can motivate you to achieve more than you ever could on your own. Knowing that others are counting on your presence also creates a powerful sense of accountability, since skipping an activity means letting down more people than just yourself. After all, nobody wants to be the no-show who forces their team to forfeit because.
6. Better movement leads to better memories
Fitness isn’t just about a healthier heart or a sharper mind: it gets your body in shape to physically handle whatever activities help give your life meaning.
For example, working hard within a well-defined training program can prepare you for recreational activities like golf, skiing, tennis, hiking, and more. Though each of those feels more like fun than exercise, they nonetheless require a certain level of strength and stamina for you to perform at your best. So whether it’s lifting to add some extra yards to your tee shot or cardio and squats to keep your quads from catching on fire after carving down a double black diamond, a fitness routine can not only keep the next day’s soreness at bay, but increase how much you enjoy your favorite active hobby while you do it.
You don’t need to be on the golf course or on top of a mountain to understand the value of feeling physically fit, though. From running around the house to picking them up or getting down on the floor to play, parents know that taking care of kids can be challenging on the joints and lungs, especially for those who might lack a consistent fitness routine. As time inevitably marches on and we approach grandparent age, other everyday tasks can require more from our muscles than they used to as well. At any age, an exercise routine focused on mobility and stamina can better prepare us for the surprising amount of lifting and moving that everyday life puts us through.
As you train your body to better handle the physical strain of parenting, grandparenting, volunteering, or even just weekend yard work, you’ll realize that you don’t need to be an elite athlete to be glad you made an effort to get in shape. But regardless of how you move through life, your workout routine isn’t the end itself. It’s what gives your body the ability to do whatever you ask it to do, which in turn helps you make more, better memories.
7. A fitness routine strengthens your self-discipline muscles
If you want to integrate all of the benefits of fitness we’ve discussed so far into your daily life, you’ll need to put forth a consistent effort. Putting forth that effort requires time and energy, two finite resources. What does it take to make sure you use those resources to pursue your goals day in and day out? A strong sense of self-discipline.
You don’t need a thesaurus to know that discipline and indulgence are antonyms. Discipline asks you to sacrifice what feels good or easy in the short term to achieve something more meaningful in the long term. It means sacrificing the time you’d normally plop down on the couch to binge your favorite shows after work. It might also mean making due with a little less (but not too little) sleep in order to exercise in the morning before your kids wake up. It’s also about accepting that an extra slice of pizza or glass of wine feels good now, but isn’t compatible with your plans for tomorrow.
There’s no getting around it: choosing what you know you should do over what you want to do takes a lot of willpower — at first. But as the advantages of making healthy choices reveal themselves, the process will eventually start to feel almost automatic as your brain rewrites that list of pros and cons.
And just like exercise’s confidence and mood-boosting properties stick with you well after the workout ends, so too does that sense of discipline. Why? Because your brain doesn’t distinguish context when it comes to using willpower. All it knows is that you’ve said you were going to do something, and now it’s time to act on it. That’s the recipe for an unbreakable sense of trust in yourself across any situation. When paired with the well-earned sense of confidence that comes from working towards a fitness goal, you gain the ability to take actions that put you in a position to succeed. It’s just one more way that the changes that come with following a fitness routine work together to expand your notion of what you can accomplish. Which leads us to our final, more holistic benefit…
8. You’re empowered and in control
To be fair, empowerment isn’t a single notion. Rather, it’s the recognition that your fitness routine has granted you these seven other benefits, many of which build on each other. It’s knowing your body has the strength to not just survive for the long term, but thrive today. Knowing that you’ve taken good care of your mind so it can work diligently and efficiently in pursuit of your goals. Knowing that you’ve honed the sense of self-discipline you need to act in the face of discomfort, and earned the confidence that can see you through any challenge. And, ideally, it involves knowing that you’ve forged a bond with someone who can push you even further along your journey.
In Henry Rollins’ first-person essay about the mental benefits of weightlifting, the former vocalist of pioneering punk band Black Flag left readers with this parting thought: “The iron never lies to you. You can go outside and listen to all kinds of talk… but two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”
That speaks to what self-empowerment through fitness is all about. The weight is the weight. The miles are the miles. The reps are the reps. Regardless of whether the rest of the world lifts you up or tears you down, none of that can take away from the knowledge that you took on a meaningful challenge and conquered it. There’s nothing like looking back on the actions and attitudes that got you to that moment and soaking up the sense of satisfaction that accompanies it. That’s when you’ll realize you’ve earned control over your own life, and have the power to reshape it as you see fit.
From the starting line, that moment of empowerment can feel impossibly far away. But with a Future coach, you’ll get customized guidance from someone who can move you a little bit closer to these positive physical and mental changes every day. Their customized workouts are fully designed around your definition of fitness, your schedule, and your goals. They’ll keep your workouts productive and your efforts consistent while providing the advice and motivation that instills confidence. It’s a special kind of training partnership where you’ll bond with someone who believes in your ability to achieve your goals, no matter where, when, or how you want to work towards them.
Need one more benefit? Try Future for free and start changing your life for the better — for less.