How many people do you know who exercise for one reason, to look better? There is a large portion of the population who associates exercise with vanity almost exclusively. I will admit that I used to be in that category. I used to only workout because I wanted to look better. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, my views on the topic have shifted significantly in the last several years. This significant shift is partially due to education, but mostly due to personal experience.
I started working out seriously in university. I had always been an active kid, I played hockey several times a week as a goalie, and I bowled a lot. I didn’t really see the need to exercise outside of that. The only time I can remember exercising seriously prior to university was one year in high school when I did a lot of core work. It was no surprise that I ended up having a far better year in net, but I didn’t end up sticking with it. So when I became a kinesiology major in university, I decided that I needed to look the part. That was when I started working out daily.
Of course, I made the rookie mistake of doing too much too fast, focusing on the wrong muscle groups, not focusing on certain muscle groups on certain days, doing ridiculous amounts of supersetting, and increasing my weight and/or reps too quickly. It didn’t work out well for me. I ended up injuring my shoulder prior to a provincial tournament for bowling, and had to quickly get myself back to being able to throw the ball pain free. Unfortunately for me, this ‘rookie mistake’ had lasting consequences that took me years to fully recover from.
The drastic shift in my thinking came when I got to chiropractic college. I had no idea what I was walking into. My first trimester in school was a very stressful time for me. Not only was I dealing with being in a different country and living away from my family for the first time, I was also trying to cope with a sharp increase in workload, and the illness of a family member several hours away. I was fortunate to make it through that trimester, much less pass all of my classes. Once I returned from the Christmas break, I vowed to begin exercising again. I had gained quite a bit of weight during my first few months away, and that just wouldn’t do. So I started exercising again when I returned to school for the winter, with vanity in mind. It wasn’t long however until I noticed that exercise had so many more benefits. I was a phys ed major in university, I had taken exercise physiology. I knew that exercise released endorphins, neurotransmitters that help to reduce stress. I didn’t really need it in undergrad. Chiropractic college was a level of stress that I hadn’t yet experienced. I found that exercise was helping me reduce my stress. I found that even by taking an hour off to exercise, I was able to study more effectively, retain more information, clear my head, and reduce my stress level. It helped me cope with the anxiety that I often found myself struggling with. It gave me an outlet to work out my frustrations.
Exercise became about so much more than vanity. Exercise helped me to keep my head on straight in order to be able to finish my doctorate.
I still continue to exercise a minimum of 5 days a week, sometimes more if I can. I do a little bit of everything, mixing up a combination of weight lifting, cardio, yoga, and kickboxing. I don’t go to a gym; I exercise in the comfort of my own home. Going to the gym has never been something that I have enjoyed, I much prefer exercising in private. Exercise is still a great stress reliever for me, and helps to curb any anxiety that may crop up every once in a while. Exercise has evolved a little more for me. It still isn’t primarily about the aesthetic. I find that while decreasing my stress level, exercise makes me more effective at my job, and helps keep me in shape for my competitive bowling schedule. It keeps me ready for anything.
There most certainly are aesthetic reasons that exercise is great. For me, exercise just became so much more than a means to look good. It became a way to feel better. Don’t just take my word for it; I will give you some studies to help back up what I’m saying.
Research has been supporting the claims that exercise has a positive impact on cognitive functions for years. It heightens your awareness, and your brain functions. A study from the British Journal of Health Psychology found that in a college student population, that when students went from a sedentary lifestyle to one of modest activity they exhibited decreases in stress, and an increase in study habits, healthy eating, and better spending among other positive habits. Long-term exercise was found to have profound changes on the students’ behaviours. In particular, it was thought to affect their self-regulation capacity. This meant that by making themselves complete a workout when they would rather quit due to exhaustion, or would rather just be anywhere else, they conditioned themselves to maintain their composure when faced with situations are were highly stressful.
Another study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology found similar results. In a student population, they took two groups with one of the groups being instructed to run biweekly for 20 weeks. At the end of the 20 weeks it was exam time. The researchers monitored the heart rate of both groups during exams and found that the ones that ran for the 20 weeks showed higher variability in their heart rate, which meant that they weren’t negatively responding to a situation that would usually cause a significant stress response.
One of the most important aspects of the two studies mentioned above is that the participants weren’t undertaking crazy workout programs. In the first study they were exercising at least 3x/week, and in the second study they were running twice a week.
Certainly there is merit in doing a vigorous exercise program; I personally tend to enjoy them, but it most certainly isn’t the only way to go. One prime example is the use of yoga as a method of stress relief.
Yoga can get a bit of a bad rap for its perceived ‘ease’, but for anyone who has done body weight training they will tell you that it is much harder than it looks. The part about yoga that can be particularly helpful when it comes to reducing stress and anxiety is the fact that classes can vary in intensity from super gentle, to leg burning intense. For people who need to ‘wind down’, those individuals may find that they will benefit from the more gentle classes.
In a German study that was published in 2005, a cohort of women who were self described as ‘emotionally distressed’ participated in biweekly yoga classes, each class lasting 90 minutes. They were asked to exclusively participate in these yoga classes, and add no additional exercise outside of that. This schedule lasted for three months. All the participants had been screened for stress, anxiety, and depression using accepted protocols. At the end of the three months, there were improvements to their scores on all three testing protocols. They reported an average improvement in wellbeing by 65%.
Now, the studies I have quoted are by no means the only studies out there that outline the psychological, and physiological benefit of exercise. There are thousands upon thousands of them. These are just a few examples. You can draw any conclusion that you like from this blog, I merely don’t like being up on my soapbox about something without having a few journal articles to back me up.
Exercise is great, and much like everything else in life there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to it. Some people will enjoy the gentle stuff like restorative yoga, walking, etc and find that their bodies respond favourably to it. Others will find themselves completely at home doing crossfit, Insanity, P90X, etc. It might take you a while to find what you like, but that’s okay. Find what you like to do, and do it. It can sometimes take a while to get into the groove where exercise becomes a habit, don’t stress yourself out over that. Start slow, and try your best. The body was designed to move, and when you do your brain will thank you for it.