By this time, everyone knows (or should know) that regular exercise is good for them. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity.
The benefits of exercise are not limited to physical health. Additional benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of well-being. Being physically active can even help you feel better about yourself, too.
These positive effects of exercise have been demonstrated in clinical research as well as in surveys. Controlled studies are considered the standard for understanding the beneficial effects of exercise, but population-based surveys are also important.
This is because large surveys help us understand what “real people” experience in the “real world,” while research studies frequently involve small numbers of subjects in controlled settings.
Consider the results of several large surveys conducted over the past few years that examined the relationships between exercise and happiness, stress, feelings of energy, and satisfaction with appearance.
In one survey, people who exercised at least 30 minutes on more days per week reported greater levels of happiness and lower levels of stress than those who exercised on fewer days. The same trend was seen when people were asked about having enough energy and feeling well-rested. Exercise, especially done regularly, makes people feel good!
A more recent survey looked at how exercise relates to how people feel about themselves, specifically their appearance. The results showed that more days per week of exercise led to people reporting a greater satisfaction with the way they look.
While the study didn’t delve into why this is true, several factors are likely. Most obviously, exercise helps with losing fat and building muscle, both of which would certainly improve appearance. But exercise also improves feelings of well-being, health, and confidence, all factors that might relate to how satisfied people feel with themselves.
It is worth mentioning that you don’t have to do extreme amounts of exercise to achieve these benefits. The surveys of exercise and happiness and stress, for example, found that that the biggest difference came between people who exercised 0–1 days and those who were active on at least two days per week. The benefits increased with more days of exercise, but the differences were smaller.
This is consistent with research showing that the biggest health benefits are realized by people who do not exercise, then start a moderate exercise program. There are additional health improvements with longer or more intense exercise, but the differences are smaller.
This fits with the current U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines which call for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Practically, this can be met by walking for 30 minutes on five days or by running for 25 to 35 minutes, 2 to 3 days per week.
This dose of exercise is consistent with improving both physical and mental health in controlled studies. According to the surveys mentioned here, it is also in line with people feeling happier, less stress, more energy, and a greater satisfaction with their appearance.
The bottom line is that exercise can make you feel better and feel better about yourself. And that seems like a perfect reason to make activity part of your daily routine!
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.