EXERCISE

5 science-backed benefits of exercise (that aren’t just physical)

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on May 13, 2024

5 science-backed benefits of exercise (that aren’t just physical)

Exercise should be about more than mirror selfies and smashing PBs. Here, we’re exploring five benefits of exercise that can be felt under the skin

1. Easing depression

Over the years, many studies have found a link between exercise and a boost in mood but, at the start of 2024, landmark research published in the British Medical Journal uncovered just how powerful the link really is.

Examining 218 studies and 14,170 participants, the research found that exercise is an effective treatment for depression. In fact, it was found to be so effective as to be comparable to psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy. And the more treatment routes we have to go down, the better for individuals to find an option that is effective for them.

2. Soothing anxiety

Anxiety can often be a very physical experience, and blowing off steam with some exercise can help to manage that anxious energy.

In a 2023 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers set out to understand the effect of an exercise intervention on improving and alleviating anxiety symptoms in college students. What they discovered was that the effect was significant and positive, with aerobic exercise being the optimal mode for soothing anxiety.

3. Improved self-esteem

You might automatically connect the link between self-esteem and exercise with the physical benefits – and while that may be the case for some people, it’s not always that way.

A 2016 study published in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment investigated this topic. It looked at the relationship between physical activity and self-esteem while introducing body mass index (BMI), perceived physical fitness, and body image. What they saw was that physical activity is directly, and also indirectly, associated with self-esteem, perceived physical fitness, and body image, but this is not the case with BMI – meaning that even without changes like weight-loss, benefits are felt. The study concludes that regular physical activity should be promoted among adults who experience low self-esteem.

4. Improved sleep quality

In 2023, a systematic review to provide evidence-based data on the association between physical activity and sleep was published in the journal Cuerus. Much work has been done in this area, and it’s a commonly repeated mantra that exercise can improve the quality of our sleep, and ease the effects of sleep disorders such as insomnia. And the review found consistent results: there is a positive link between sleep and exercise.

That said, there were some specifics to keep in mind. Nighttime physical exercise, particularly high-intensity interval training, could negatively affect sleep quality if performed less than an hour before bedtime. Instead, the best activities for sleep were found to be moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, strength training, and mind-body exercises like yoga and tai chi.

5. A boost in memory

You may be able to recall the experience of having a ‘clearer’ head following a workout, and the evidence suggests that it may be having a real impact on our memory and concentration.

In 2022, researchers from the University of Dartmouth set study participants four types of memory tasks. Two sets of tasks were aimed at testing ‘episodic’ memory (the type of memory used to remember autobiographical events) and another two to test ‘spatial memory’ (like where you left something). Interestingly, participants who were more active tended to show better memory overall, but specific areas of improvement were found to be dependent on which types of activity people did.

What the researchers concluded was that participants who often exercised at moderate intensities tended to perform better on the episodic memory tasks, while those who often exercised at high intensities did better at the spatial memory tasks.

Looking at ways this could be applied to our regular lives, the team said that their findings could have ‘exciting applications’ – for example, specific exercise routines for students preparing for an exam.

The research is fascinating and the possibilities are vast – and these five areas are just a few of many. When used as a tool for our mental health and wellbeing, it’s undeniable that exercise can be an empowering force.

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