Physical exercise improves mental health. Recently, a 1.2 million person study in the Lancet confirmed this: https://www.thelancet.com/…/PIIS2215-0366(18)3022…/fulltext…
Whole books, like “Spark” by Dr. John J. Ratey, MD, have gone to great lengths to unpack all that is contributed to brain health from exercise. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, as one example, may be nearly absent in sedentary adults while teeming in active individuals. BDNF allows the human brain to rewire, not just amplifying the learning process for new skills or languages, but also rewiring in ways that allow the brain to learn how to not be in pain, how to not be depressed, how to not be anxious, how to not be as sick, how to not be as inflamed.
Since some of these mechanisms are well understood, the outcomes are unsurprising. Moreover, it begs the question about the direction of causality. People tend to think that when they see body composition results, that makes them feel good, reinforcing the behaviors that led to the body composition change. But it’s likely precisely the opposite. That is, when you exercise out of a responsibility of mature self-care, you feel better emotionally. That emotional improvement, paired with the brain’s newfound capacity for amplified learning, consequently improves chances of body composition changes.
In fact, we know this must be the linear relationship. One, we know that almost 100% of people who achieve major body composition improvements throw away the results within 2-3 years. So achieving a “look” doesn’t have anything to do with long term success. The emphasis on appearance, as opposed to implementing consistent healthy behaviors, DOES NOT YIELD LONG TERM SUCCESS. Two, we know that only people who implement healthy behaviors for the sake of consistent beneficial fitness are the ones who still have body composition improvements at 5, 10, 15 year followup. The causal line is exactly inverted from our societal expectation.
Thus, we must conclude, as has already been done ad infinitum in psychology, that the best results aren’t easily seen. They are working underneath the surface, re-contouring the build of the brain, re-sculpting the wiring of our emotions, re-learning how to claim control and agency over our destinies.
Physical activity isn’t an imposition. It’s not a temporary patch on a broken soul. It’s a daily necessity, like breathing oxygen. We’ve so contorted and perverted the idea of exercise that we’ve made it a difficult and inaccessible behavior for ourselves. People say, “I hate working out.” But the truth is that we hate what other people have defined for us to be “working out,” while our soul craves regular and consistent activity.
Instead of aversion, we have to view it like a major part of the purpose for the human animal. We cannot live one day without a major component of our human purpose. It may be a walk. It may be a “workout” in the conventional sense. But whatever it is, it must be, if for nothing else than the basic mental health which leads us to be our better selves.