It’s tempting, isn’t it? To believe the promises of those six-week body boot camps, to gawp at the toned tummies and bouncy bottoms advertised in fitness magazines, and to fantasize about how much better life could be if we could just lose a little weight (especially after the festive indulgences)…
It may feel disheartening then, to learn the research shows exercise is actually pretty unhelpful for weight loss . This means that not only does exercising to lose weight rarely have the desired effect (of getting Jason Momoa style buff), but that using weight loss as your sole motivation for exercising, means you’re unlikely to stick at it for long. Yet, as we know, exercise has a broad range of wellbeing benefits which stretch way beyond simply looking good, to you know actually feeling good.
In a world where appearances often reign supreme, it can be difficult to take a step back from the gram and do something beneficial for us in a way that doesn’t translate to more 'likes', or increased shares of our Insta handle. However, if we want to take care of our wellbeing, reframing our focus from how it looks to how we feel is an essential step.
This is particularly true when it comes to exercise, where the list of wellbeing benefits are as long as the first couch to 5k feels (but much more motivating, we promise!). So to start you off, here are just five of the benefits that you can enjoy with regular exercise, that have nothing to do with losing weight:
1. Exercise improves our self-esteem
One of the things that is so powerful about regular exercise is how it teaches us to manage discomfort. Whether you’re enduring the last minutes of a marathon or waiting for your hamstrings to stretch in a downward-facing dog, exercise means enduring a level of stress on the body which more horizontal activities (like Netflix binges) do not demand.
Research highlights that this helps improve our self-esteem by showing us that we can make it through to the other side of the struggle . A regular exercise practice is a way of putting into action the knowledge we have of how we can make ourselves feel better, which teaches us to trust in our capacity to improve things for ourselves. Developing this self-trust is a crucial building block for improving our self-esteem.
2. Movement can lift our mood
The feel-good effect of exercise has been well-documented in research papers, which illustrate how the feel-good hormones; dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are released post-workout . The rush of endorphins is part of what fuels exercise lovers, you know the kind who do iron mans ‘for fun’ or seem to have developed the super-human capacity to run and talk *at the same time*.
The good news is that you don’t need to complete a mega-marathon or be the next Simone Biles to enjoy the rush - it can be as simple as a sweaty speed-walk to get your mood beaming brighter than the summer sun (remember that?!).
3. Strength training for life
When we exercise there can be a temptation to fixate on the aesthetic appearance of our bodies as they change. The problem here is, our appearance is largely beyond our control - no matter how much we exercise: we will age and our skin will wrinkle, we may incur injuries that leave scars, our hair will go grey. So, attaching our mood (or even our sense of self) to our appearance is going to lead one way; to a steep decline, as we age.
Instead, if we focus on what exercise enables us to do with our bodies, it can make us feel strong both in our bodies and our minds. Think how much harder climbing the stairs would be if you didn’t go for your daily jog? Or perhaps you notice you can lift your suitcase with ease since you began lifting weights last month?
Think of exercise as a way of training your body for life; whether that’s moving house, going out all night raving, lugging your work backpack around, or just being intimate with the person or people you love - the stronger you are, the better it will be (we mean life, of course…)
4. Exercise can connect us to our inner child
When we are little we don’t think of exercise as something we have to do, it’s simply a part of living. Running when we hear the tinny melody of the ice cream van, swinging so high on the swings that we nearly reach the sun, competitively skipping through enormous ropes in the playground - it all just comes naturally to us. Then we find ourselves adulting and suddenly we’re struggling to find 30 minutes to fit a weekly jog in. Yet research shows a very real connection between playfulness in adults and increased physical activity .
So, perhaps the converse can also be true? What if instead of exercising, we tried playing like when we were younger - and see if that helps get our heart rate up and our inner-child skipping away.
5. Exercise makes our gut feel good
And not because it (necessarily) shrinks it! Recent research shows that exercise has a positive impact on the microbiome (that is the bacteria that live in our gut). According to the science, exercise improves the diversity and abundance of specific (‘good’) bacteria . The more diverse our gut bacteria, the better we feel; both physically and psychologically.
Happy body = happy tummy = happy brain = happy human.
Of course, that’s not to say you can necessarily exercise away a bad mood (or a serious psychological diagnosis for that matter) but exercising helps form the foundations of a healthier body and mind. Turns out the way to a person’s heart (and head) is through the stomach after all!
Final thoughts: It can feel difficult finding the motivation to exercise, particularly if we’re not feeling good about our bodies. When we turn our focus to the quality of our experience (as opposed to our outward appearance) it’s easier to start exercising in a way that works for us. Have a read of our blog 'EVERY body can be a fit body' for more inspiration and self-love-goodness.
1. Physical activity, total and regional obesity: dose-response considerations (2001). Med Sci Sports Exerc.
2. Physical Activity, Self-Efficacy, and Self-Esteem: Longitudinal Relationships in Older Adults (2005). The Journals of Gerontology.
3. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review (2017). Brain Blast.
4. The Positive Relationships of Playfulness With Indicators of Health, Activity, and Physical Fitness (2018). Frontiers in Psychology.
5. Exercise influence on the microbiome-gut-brain axis (2019). Gut Microbes.