We’ve all been there: we’ve started working out or exercising a few times a week and told our friends how we’ve turned over a new leaf, “for real this time”, only to get a few weeks down the line and realise…we don’t look or feel any different physically. At all.
And then? The motivation begins to wane, and old habits begin to creep back in.
But can you imagine how much easier it’d be if we saw the physical benefits of exercising or healthy eating immediately? Imagine if, after every time we ate a can of spinach, our biceps bulged in a Popeye-esque fashion. It’d be a little easier to stay motivated, that’s for certain.
The thing is, physical exercise does have immediate benefits. Of course, this won’t be news to anyone who’s ever exercised. We know that exercise releases serotonin, endorphins and dopamine, which combine to form a mood-boosting, stress-busting and energy-enhancing cocktail. And that feels good.
Still, for many of us, those mental health benefits are often secondary to our physical goals. We exercise to ‘get fit’ – the ‘feeling good’ element is just a bonus.
But what if we flipped this perspective entirely on its head? What if, instead of hitting the gym with this vision of an athletic and muscular self in mind (a nice goal, but one that will take many months, even years, of effort), we hit the gym, took a hike, or went for a swim simply because we wanted to feel good, right now. How would that affect our motivation? And ultimately, how would that affect our ability to stick to our long-term physical goals?
Recent studies indicate that more and more people are adopting this exact philosophy, and using physical exercise exclusively as a means to boost their mental wellbeing vs. to get fit or lose weight.
In this scenario, the physical benefits are the bonus, not the goal.
In a survey this year of over 4,000 young people (aged between 16-39) from over 30 different countries, VICE found that “mental health is at the centre of how we view and evaluate our overall health today.”
Even more tellingly, the survey, which was conducted to find out how respondents were adjusting to deal with the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, states that:
“The goal of working out has shifted from looking good to feeling good. One in two people are using workouts to maintain a routine, enabling them to find stability in these unpredictable times. The motivation, according to our audience, is, number one, to feel good, and number two, to manage mental and emotional health. They are devoting more resources to their physical health to help them maintain their mental health.”
For AIA Vitality Ambassador and endurance athlete Sam Gash, the results of this survey aren’t at all surprising. “I see it as a positive by-product of this adversity we’ve seen from COVID, that people are heading towards a much healthier and more sustainable reasoning behind why they move,” she says. “The reality is, when our movement is purely based on aesthetics, that’s not a particularly strong motivation. What if you transformed overnight and had your ideal body when you woke up? Would you just stop working out or exercising? The reality is that the aesthetic benefits are just one small by-product of exercise.”
While we know that exercise is good for our mental health, many of us might not know how good. In research conducted in partnership with Quantium Health earlier this year, AIA Australia found that individuals who take 10,000+ steps (or exercise equivalent) a day have up to half the depression risk of those who take 2,000 steps or less.
For Joe, a 33-year-old from Melbourne who’s been working from home full-time since the pandemic kicked off, the mental benefits of his new exercise regime have been the motivating factor. But it wasn’t always that way. “Initially, I started running when lockdown began because I thought it’d be a cheap way to get in better shape,” he says. “But after a while, I realised that I was running more to feel a release. It was a way to open the pressure valve a bit, and I began to notice that on days I didn’t run, my general mood would be much lower.”
For Joe, it’s the mood-boosting benefits that have helped him stick to his running, not the more superficial goal of getting in ‘better shape’. “I mean, I think I’m definitely a bit fitter than I was, but I haven’t noticed any big physical changes,” he says. “But instead of losing motivation…it’s almost become a non-factor. More than the physical changes, the mental benefits are what I’m most pleased by.”
And of course, the better we feel, the more likely we are to stick to whatever physical exercise routine we’ve made for ourselves. As far as Sam Gash is concerned, focusing primarily on how we feel in the here and now, versus how we might like to look over the long-term, is a winning mentality.
“There’s that saying that you never finish a workout feeling bad,” she says. “It might be hard to start, but once you’ve finished and even during exercise, you get those immediate mental benefits – serotonin, endorphins, dopamine. So that’s just further encouragement to move on a regular basis, and to stick to it over the long-term.”