Many of us see exercise as a chore or something that's optional. But it doesn't need to be punishment or only done in the pursuit of a certain body shape, and it’s essential for living a long and healthy life.
Here are some of the benefits of movement for your physical, mental and social wellbeing that goes beyond building muscle or losing weight.
1. Mood and mental health
Exercise ticks plenty of boxes when it comes to helping mental health. It improves your mood, sleep, self-esteem and cognitive function, and helps to prevent or treat a range of mental health conditions. While outcomes vary depending on the condition and the way you exercise, it can have an important role in preventing and treating depression1, which impacts one in eight Australian men over their lifetime, and may be useful for managing anxiety2, which affects one in five men. While the exact reasons why exercise affects your mental health aren’t confirmed, some of the ways it’s believed to work are by increasing endorphins (the body’s feel-good hormones), distracting you from negative thoughts and feelings, improving physical health (which is linked to mental health), managing your nervous system’s reactivity to stress, improving self-efficacy and reducing isolation (if you’re working out with a pet or other people).
More than half of Australians don't get the recommended amount of physical activity — a goal that can be even more challenging for those with a mental illness. Inactivity can both contribute to poor mental health and be a consequence of it, with low mood and motivation reducing your ability to get moving. Reducing barriers that might hold you back from exercise is important. Start by setting small goals (just a 10-minute walk), planning your activity in advance (write down your routine or book a class), recruiting some support (use positive peer pressure to commit) and making it fun (you don’t have to hit the treadmill, try rock climbing).
2. Physical health and longevity
Research consistently shows exercise can help prevent and treat disease and chronic health conditions. Getting the recommended amount of physical activity can reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. Exercise can also reduce your risk of dying from disease — men with prostate cancer who did a certain amount of vigorous physical activity each week had a 61% lower risk of dying3— with benefits for managing conditions like back pain and osteoarthritis. Researchers are learning more about the enormous changes exercise has on our internal chemistry and how that affects our health outcomes.
“What we’re seeing is that when we exercise our muscles produce medicine — substances that are called cytokines — and they actually suppress tumour cell growth,” says Prof Robert Newton, Professor of Exercise Medicine at Edith Cowan University. “We see that exercise also activates the immune system and, in particular, what are called natural killer cells. When we exercise, these natural killer cells circulate into the actual cancer, they attack the cancer cells and it’s through those mechanisms, we’re starting to understand how exercise actually slows cancer progression.”
3. Connection and relationships
Strong and supportive relationships are linked to lower rates of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem, greater empathy, a stronger immune system, and they may even lengthen your life — a landmark study shows strong social connections lead to a 50% increase chance of longevity. On the flip side, it also found a lack of social connection can have a greater impact on health than obesity and smoking. Opportunities to meet new people gradually decline as we get older, without school or study to extend our network and we might also be set in our ways when it comes to our day-to-day habits. For a lot of men, it’s also more comfortable to strike up a conversation and form a connection when you're doing something else and bonding over a shared interest. Exercise can tick those boxes, whether it’s signing up to a local footy club or joining Park Run.
Plus, you’re less likely to hit snooze on your alarm when you’re leaving a mate waiting. “Research tells us that exercising with a friend boosts enjoyment, improves consistency and having someone to socialise with is always a great way to boost your mood,” says Accredited Exercise Physiologist Sam Rooney.
For more information about exercising for the right reasons, visit exerciseright.com.au.
1. Hu, M.X., Turner, D., Generaal, E. et al. 2020. Exercise interventions for the prevention of depression: a systematic review of meta-analyses. BMC Public Health
2. Stonerock, G. L., Hoffman, B. M., Smith, P. J., & Blumenthal, J. A. 2015. Exercise as Treatment for Anxiety: Systematic Review and Analysis. Annals of behavioral medicine: a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine
3. Kenfield et al., 2011. Physical activity and survival after prostate cancer diagnosis in the health professionals follow-up study. J Clin Oncology