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  • Writer's picturegcpsych

The mental benefits of physical exercise.

Some people may engage in a regular exercise routine because they recognise the value and importance of maintaining a healthy body, strong muscles, dense bones, joint flexibility and cardiovascular fitness. For others, it may be more about weight management or general health issues. But there's a lot more to be gained besides the physical benefits, and for some people these side-benefits are even more crucial to their well-being.

For one thing, there is the sense of belonging . . . the notion that "there's a place that I go, a thing that I do, a segment of the population that I'm a part of, a validation of a recognised activity that (whether solo or shared) helps to define who I am and where I fit in with others". Human beings (and many other creatures) have an innate need to belong, to congregate, to feel they are part of something, to have a sense of connectedness with a larger community. An exercise regimen (particularly in a shared environment) provides these things.

Another factor is the interpersonal . . . the opportunity to relate to others, to talk with them, and to share experiences. You may have noticed that such (exercise) groups all seem to have their own jargon, their own manner of interacting, their own language. Whether it's talking about specific types of equipment, the latest technological gadgetry, some PB's or KOM's, or simply the banter about who (in the professional scene) is doing what. It does indeed become a clearly defined language with which only those "in the know" are familiar.

Further to this, exercise tends to lead to meetings, and to meeting places. The juice bar next to the gym. The cafe at the end of a bike ride. That bakery out near the trails. The 19th hole on a golf course. It's an illustration that we are there for more than just the physical exertion, the fitness challenge or the pursuit of a goal. We are there to BE there, to be with others, to be social, to listen and learn (and to be heard), to be valued and to value others. We are there because we LIKE to be there, and it somehow nurtures a part of us that needs nurturing.

The sharing that often takes place in a group exercise environment can be surprisingly deep, rich and supportive. Perhaps it is because of the challenges faced together, the time spent together, the sense of freedom (and the dropping of boundaries) that comes with exertion, or simply the knowledge that "this person can be trusted, can be helpful, can be confided in". It has been my experience (on long bike rides) that almost any subject can be raised, discussed, worked through, or empathised with . . . and it may be that side-by-side physical effort (as opposed to the face-to-face confronting of feelings) that allows for such communication to take place.

For many people, their exercise program is the place where they learn, or put into practice, the setting of goals. They may learn self-discipline, self-management, independence and strategic thinking. They may come to recognise the value of pushing their boundaries, of facing challenges . . . and of achievement, accomplishment or competition. Some people may learn social skills, a new work ethic, leadership skills or planning skills. And in the setting of exercise goals, it becomes possible to also set life goals and to foster a type of forward thinking and future-orientation that provides direction and hope (for those that lack it).

Even a solo activity can be healthful and "cleansing". I myself frequently get out for a solo ride, with no particular destination in mind, just to clear my head, arrange my thoughts, spend some time in contemplation, or simply "switch off". For others that I've spoken to, it's occasionally their only opportunity to do something just for themselves, to not have to BE anything for anyone else, to reflect on life or enjoy nature . . . it's a break from the daily grind of work , the demands of family, or the pressures of modern life. That chance to go somewhere and just breathe, without having to meet anyone's expectations, and to reconnect with a part of our own soul, can be extremely liberating and refreshing.

Each of these things is vitally important to the overall health and well-being . . . mental, emotional, interpersonal and spiritual . . . of a person. Relative abilities matter little, and the material gains are typically few (if any). But it seems quite clear that the benefits of taking part in regular exercise far exceed the impact on our physical bodies. Those benefits include mental clarity, emotional strength, interpersonal connectedness, spiritual awareness, and a multitude of other intangibles that simply make us happier and healthier human beings. (And the fact of measurable exercise-induced increases in dopamine and serotonin levels . . . neurotransmitters associated with pleasure and happiness . . . supports this notion.)

If you DON'T exercise on a regular basis, and you have any psychological or emotional health concerns, give it a try for a couple of months. You may be pleasantly surprised at the effects. And if you DO exercise regularly, don't underestimate its value and importance to your well-being. When you're feeling out-of-sorts, depleted or burned out . . . get together with friends and sweat it off.

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