When most people think about the long-term effects of exercise, their minds immediately dart to physiological benefits. Lower blood pressure, increased bone density, and improved quality of life are just a few health benefits you’ll get from a regular fitness routine.
While I would never downplay any of the above, I would argue this: The mental and psychological effects far outweigh those of physical nature. And I say this from personal experience.
There’s a common path that every athlete takes in their fitness journey. They begin working out for a physical benefit — hoping to lose weight, lower their blood sugar, or decrease knee pain — but end up finding so much else. They find confidence in themselves, passion for things they once loved, and inspiration to approach new challenges.
Some credit this phenomenon to endorphins, but I chalk it up to something much greater: that pushing yourself to do hard shit inside the gym (or outside) prepares you for life’s greatest challenges outside of it.
If you’ve been through this journey and felt this transformation, you understand what I’m referring to. If you haven’t, let me show you exactly what I mean.
6 Long-Term Effects of Exercise on Mental Health
Here's what your physical education class never taught you: Some of the biggest benefits of exercise have nothing to do with your heart rate, blood flow, or blood pressure.
Instead, it has everything to do with your mental and psychological well-being. Dedicating yourself to a regular workout routine can improve your mood, relationships, and concentration. Most importantly, it teaches you that you can rise to any challenge — inside or outside the gym.
1. It Trains You to Get Uncomfortable
Let me tell you something you already know: Working out is hard.
Yes, I’m a fitness professional and yes, there are some workouts that leave me on the couch for the majority of the afternoon, questioning my life choices. A workout is meant to challenge you. Just because your fitness level increases over time, doesn’t mean you should ever, ever stop seeking a challenge in your workouts.
Now, is that to say that every workout should suck the life out of you? Of course not. But a workout should make you uncomfortable. Because by making yourself uncomfortable, eventually you become comfortable with being uncomfortable. That, in turn, prepares you to face all sorts of challenges in your everyday life, whether they’re exercise-related or not.
Arguably some — if not the — most strenuous workouts on Earth take place within Navy SEALs training. The physical and mental training increases to brutal levels throughout a six-month period, where 80% of people leave the program. Navy SEAL commander Jocko Willink says this grueling program serves one purpose: to teach people not to quit. Growth only happens outside of your comfort zone.
After countless hours of pushups, pullups, swims, and rope climbs, a Navy SEAL is prepared to go through something far worse (e.g., warfare). Jocko's philosophy is backed up by science, as studies show that regular exercise can increase your pain threshold, thereby willing you not to quit.
Will you face Navy SEAL training in your lifetime? Probably not. But you will face career transitions, breakups, new cities, and letting go of old friends — none of which is easy. While each of these experiences will be paired with sad or frustrating days, you can face each one thinking, “This may challenge me, but it won’t be what breaks me.”
2. It Teaches You to Put Yourself First
When it comes to setting priorities, there is no one more capable than a flight attendant (hear me out). Even amidst the life-altering panic and chaos of a plane going down, a flight attendant will give you one, simple instruction: Put your own oxygen mask on first.
This logic can also be applied outside an airport terminal. You cannot expect to take care of others if you don't take care of yourself first.
A lack of time is often cited as one of the most significant barriers to squeezing in regular physical activity. Demanding jobs and family obligations can often take precedence over your own health, leaving you feeling drained, tired, and burnt out.
But how do you carve out time to exercise when time is already limited? To answer this, I always enjoyed the article, “Why Exercising Is a Higher Priority Than My Business,” by entrepreneur Josh Steimle. In the piece, Josh explains that even though he owns a company and employees depend on him for their livelihood, he still makes time to work out each day. When he lets his workouts slip, his productivity at work suffers. He becomes depressed, loses motivation, and even suffers in his personal relationships.
By contrast, Josh says that regular exercise makes him a better father, friend, and entrepreneur — because he's taken care of himself first, he's more apt to give to others.
We are our best selves when we prioritize our own health. You cannot tell me you perform best as an employee, parent, or partner when you are sick, run down, and tired. Since fitness improves your overall health and increases your capacity, you are better equipped to fulfill every other role in your life when you maintain a regular workout routine.
3. It Propels You Into Better Habits
There are so many things in life that are outside of our control. Luckily, exercise isn't one of them.
Every day when you wake up — even if you're dealing with pain, fatigue, or muscle soreness — you have the choice to work out. When you choose to exercise, it can easily lead to other healthy choices.
You probably notice this pattern in everyday life. When you choose to drink water instead of alcohol, you may choose cooking a home-cooked meal rather than ordering delivery. When you practice good sleep hygiene, you start your morning checking off your to-do list rather than hitting the snooze button. When you're diligent about doing a proper warmup before working out at a high intensity, you follow-through with a cool down.
James Clear, author of the bestselling book “Atomic Habits,” refers to this process as habit stacking. Essentially, your brain is wired to build connections between certain tasks — an automated checklist, if you will. For example, when you wake up, you may turn on the shower, brush your teeth, and start a pot of coffee, all without thinking about it.
Since your brain is already wired to complete events in a certain order, you can use this to your advantage to develop better habits. For example, after your workout, you automatically sit down to stretch and foam roll. Once you complete your recovery work, you eat a nutrient-dense, high-protein meal to help increase muscle hypertrophy. Throughout the day, you drink plenty of water to flush out any lactic acid and keep you hydrated. At night, you go to bed early so you're prepared for your workout the next morning.
Doesn't that sound like an incredibly productive, healthy day? Just a simple 30-minute workout leads to 24 hours of good decisions and a happier, healthier life.
4. It Can Strengthen the Relationships With Those Around You
It's true what they say: You are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. Have you ever noticed that people who work out tend to be more productive, happy, and all around … together?
Being around people who place their health first can have a positive impact on you. Rather than go to happy hour, go to a brewery, or "just grab drinks" with friends, you can do a workout as a means of social interaction. Suddenly, all social activities that once revolved around food and booze transform into a jog in the park (for aerobic exercise), spotting each other in the weight room (for resistance training), or going on a hike (for active recovery).
Alan Kohll, president and founder of TotalWellness, a national health and wellness services provider, actually pays his employees to exercise at work. While he notes that exercise can be used for stress relief, improved cardiovascular health, and improved productivity, he lists increased social interaction as the first reason he wants employees to exercise together.
Alan states that regular exercise offers colleagues an opportunity to connect outside the formal working environment. This, in turn, fosters healthy professional and personal relationships, and increases accountability among teammates.
5. It Can Make You a Happier Human
OK, fine. I admit it — endorphins do deserve a little credit for improving your mental health.
Allow me to get scientific for a second: One of the most notable short-term effects of exercise is a release of endorphins, or the chemicals that make you happy. As you're working your muscular and respiratory systems at the gym, your brain releases endorphins and serotonin, which can boost your mood. Serotonin levels are low in people with anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. In addition, in a longitudinal study, exercise has been shown to increase circulation through your blood vessels and capillaries. This, in turn, increases blood flow to the brain, which helps boost your mood.
So, does exercise really make us happier? According to this piece in the New York Times, it appears so. In a randomized controlled trial, it was found that people who work out even once a week (and as little as 10 minutes per day!) were found to be more cheerful than those who never exercise. In addition, a number of studies have reported that physically active people have lower risks of depression and anxiety.
Here's what's better: In every systematic review or clinical trial, it didn’t matter what kind of exercise people did. Therefore, if you want to enjoy the long-term effects of exercise, find something you actually enjoy. If you love body weight HIIT workouts, great — sign up for a class near your home. If you prefer roller blading, biking, or skiing with friends, that works too. It doesn't matter how you're working your body systems — it just matters that you're squeezing a workout in.
6. It Can Make You Smarter and Increase Productivity
Have you ever noticed that after a tough workout, you can think so much more clearly? Any lingering brain fog from the work day all but vanishes and you feel better equipped to tackle your to-do list.
This isn't a coincidence. Exercise can increase your focus for three hours post-workout, according to Dr. John Ratey, author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” In the short term, working muscles to exhaustion helps you ace a presentation or finish a report. In the long term, it can help prevent brain aging and Alzheimer's.
If you want to improve your concentration, regular exercise can help. In fact, a growing body of public health research suggests that exercise can be used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Research suggests that people who exercise regularly have longer attention spans — yet many kids and adults suffering from ADHD don't get enough exercise. Taxing the cardiovascular system in particular allowed kids with ADHD to more efficiently tackle various tasks. In other words, as your heart rate increases (e.g., when you do cardio), so does your capability to be productive.
Do you hesitate to work out before work because you fear you’ll be too tired to tackle your workday? Don’t be. Working your respiratory muscles can actually improve your productivity and concentration, not harm it.
Does Exercise Benefit Your Physical Health? Of Course
It’s a well-known fact that exercise is one of the most commonly prescribed treatments for high blood pressure, weight management, and high blood sugar. You know this already, as every doctor, coach, and gym teacher probably reminds you at least once a year.
Here’s what they don’t tell you: A regular workout routine can make you a happier, more resilient person. Daily exercise helps boost your mood, foster stronger relationships, intensify your concentration, and give you confidence to tackle life’s challenges. To me, that sounds like a fulfilling life.
The benefits of exercise are immense, but starting a new routine can be tough. For detailed workout and nutrition plans to help get you started, join my Build Bullet-Proof Health program. On our premium plan, you get monthly one-on-one calls with me to ensure this new habit becomes something you stick to — for life.
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