Winston Churchill once said that whenever he felt the urge to exercise, he lay down until it went away. A reasonable sentiment you may think, given that exercise can be so painful.
So why, you may ask, do so many people do it voluntarily? Why do joggers run the risk of stiffness and soreness the next day? Why do skiers freeze their buns off (as well as empty their wallets)? Why would anyone paddle a canoe, when they can use an outboard motor?
Of course, there are the long-term benefits: improved health, decreased weight, increased energy and improved fitness. Yet these are somewhat intangible and don’t really make you want to leap out of bed on a cold, dark morning.
Surprisingly, the answer seems to lie more in the mental, rather than the physical benefits. Sure, there are plenty of the latter (as we’ll see below), but what is more interesting is the psychological benefit you can get from being active.
It’s here where we have a bit to learn from addiction studies. Exercise it seems, can be a form of addiction, like drugs - albeit usually in a more positive fashion. The symptoms of addiction include habituation, withdrawal, tolerance, analgesia and euphoria. The same symptoms become familiar to the habitual exerciser: you don’t like to miss a day’s activity; the fitter you get, the more you want to do; habitual activity kills the pain unfit people associate with it; and euphoria is why most people keep doing it.
Of course, this doesn’t happen from day one. Done the right way, though, it does happen. In the meantime, you might be motivated enough by the physical benefits.
There are three things here we can definitely promise. First, you’ll look better, second, you’ll feel better, and third, you’ll perform better. Now don’t misunderstand me. You may not look good, or feel fantastic, or perform brilliantly - but you will look, feel and perform better.
If you do it often enough and long enough, we now also know that it can help you live longer (and not just because it feels longer). Death rates from all causes are lower in the habitually active, but particularly from heart disease, diabetes and several forms of cancer.
There are also benefits for your mental health and feelings of wellbeing. Surprisingly, recent research has also shown that you’ll keep your teeth longer, for the same reasons that exercise reduces diabetic complications, by increasing the flow of blood to the smaller blood vessels of the periphery, such as the gums, fingers and toes.
One of the most immediate benefits is in the maintenance of a lower body weight. While diet may be the best to get an immediate reduction in weight, exercise is known to be the best for long-term weight loss maintenance. You may not burn enough calories doing it to lose a large amount, but the changes to metabolism in habitual exercise are enough to make long-term maintenance easier – and this is where it counts.
We could go on, but a regular lifestyle pattern of exercise is something that really has to be felt, not talked about. One thing that should be clear, though, is that if you can’t imagine this, your body control mechanisms are probably already out of whack because activity is a natural physical function. Without it, all the body’s other natural functions (eating, sleep, sex, etc) also get out of control and no longer obey the common laws of nature. If the other issues aren’t enough to spur you into action, surely this is. To find out what exercise suits you best or your current level of exercise enjoyment, try the following Lifestyle Medicine Assessments.