But exercise is not just good for the body - it is good for the mind. When your body feels fit, you get a range of positive mental benefits.
Exercise releases a variety of chemicals including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine into the brain, all of which generate positive moods. They make us feel better about ourselves, boosting our self-esteem and enhancing our sense of control over our own lives and bodies.
Exercise has a positive effect on our attitude to our own body image and our feelings of strength and fitness, which could be particularly important for women, who tend to be more self-critical about their body shape than men. And women's body image is more closely linked to overall self esteem than men's.
People who take regular exercise are less anxious and report less emotional distress than those who are inactive. Even a single exercise session can help individuals reduce feelings of anxiety.
Regular physical activity is effective in combating depression. Indeed inactive people, particularly those who are older, are more likely to develop signs of clinical depression. Depressed people who take regular exercise for six months or more require less medication than their inactive counterparts and are more likely to recover than those relying on drug treatment alone.
In one study, people aged 65+ who practised Tai Chi for more than a year were more positive in their outlook, had less mood disturbance, lower blood pressure and fewer falls than a control group who didn't practise Tai Chi.
Physical activity also reduces anxiety in older people and enhances their mood, even when they don't show any signs of improved fitness. And it can also offers some protection against cognitive impairment such as confusion, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease.
Professor Stuart Biddle of Loughborough University, a specialist on motivation and sport, argues that the 'feel good' effect of physical activity has great potential for our well-being and mental health. His book Physical Activity and Psychological Well-Being provides research demonstrating the relationship between physical exercise and mental health, including exercise. He shows how exercise has an impact on:
- mood and emotion
- cognitive functioning
- psychological dysfunction.
Even relatively low levels of physical activity can enhance our sense of well-being. The benefits may not just be to our bodily functions but to our emotional need for belonging and connection. For example, simply walking to the shops or to collect children from school not only gives a small boost to our circulation system, but also boosts our opportunities for meeting and talking with other people.
Members of sports clubs, dance classes, or exercise groups get much more than a work-out. They also enjoy a sense of attachment, of membership of something bigger than themselves. They share experiences with others, discuss tactics and techniques, improve their skills, coach others, learn to cope with failure and to savour success. So the importance of such activities is also because they encourage us to form friendshps which may blossom into lifelong relationships.
So physical activity doesn't just build muscle and stronger hearts. Through the release of feel-good hormones and enhanced connections with other people exercise does wonders for our well-being.