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The true motivator for exercise

While the thought of getting active may have you wishing there was a magic pill that could get the same results as regular exercise does, the good news is thinking about the immediate benefits of exercise may help you move more and actually enjoy it along the way. 

We’ve all heard it more than once before – exercise for 30 minutes on most, preferably all days of the week and you’ll help to prevent heart disease, lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and some cancers, maintain and build stronger muscles, bones and joints, and reduce your risk of injury. Up your workout to at least 60 minutes a day and it’ll help you lose weight and improve your shape. These are the messages that are constantly talked about by health experts (including myself) and used as catchy headlines by journalists and reporters to entice us to move more. What you’ll rarely hear or see as the motivator for moving more are the amazing mental health benefits that come with regular exercise. That is, you’ll get a super boost in your current well-being and happiness.

According to new research by Dr Michelle Segar and colleagues published in the journal Women’s Health Issues, it’s time we rephrased the benefits of exercise. Rather than using weight loss, body image and future health benefits as motivators for exercise, we need to make exercise relevant to people’s daily lives. With such frantic lifestyles, we only fit in what is essential and Dr Segar believes we will not commit to exercise if the benefits are distant or simply theoretical. People will exercise more if they believe it improves their quality of life rather improves their health long-term.

Earlier research by Dr Segar published in the journal Sex Roles found that women who exercise for the sole purpose of shedding weight or toning up may attend the most exercise classes, but they actually spend 40 per cent less time exercising overall than women who were active because it made them feel good or relieved stressed. Associating exercise with a hatred for your body doesn’t motivate you to keep being active long-term, says research from the University of Wales. The study of 252 office workers found that while many began to exercise as a way to lose weight and improve appearance, these motivators did not keep them exercising in the long-term. Based on this, instead of medically prescribing exercise, Dr Segar believes we need to address a person’s emotional hooks that make it essential for them to find the time to exercise – that is improved mood, more energy, less stress and more productive. I couldn’t agree more.

Moving for Mood

So what are the mental benefits you’ll get by exercising more? Well, according to regular exercisers they experience fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and report lower levels of stress and anger when they exercise. This occurs because exercise increases the release of certain neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin and norepinephrine, and subsequently boosts mood. Within about 30 minutes of exercise, endorphins are released and these endorphins tend to minimise the discomfort of exercise, as they bind to opioid receptors in neurons, blocking the release of neurotransmitters that promote pain and instead producing a feeling of euphoria. If you don’t have 30 minutes to spare though, just five minutes of exercise may be enough to give you a mood and self-esteem boost, as long as you do it outside in a park or other natural surrounding, say UK researchers. Of course, once you feel the immediate benefits such as lower stress levels, better mood and more energy, you’ll find more than five minutes a day to move.

Why do you exercise?

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