If you’re like many of us, your workout routine probably looks pretty different than it did a few weeks ago. But regardless of how you’re getting moving, the benefits of exercise still remain: Working out is seriously helpful for both your body and your mind—something that’s extra important right now, as social distancing due to the new coronavirus has left many of us feeling stressed and isolated.
Exercise means different things to different people, and, heck, it could mean something different to you now than it did a couple months ago. But even if you’re a regular gymgoer or a fitness class enthusiast, you can still get your workout in at home. That means the benefits of exercise can still continue, even if the way you’re going about it has changed.
Let’s be clear about one thing, though: There’s no argument here that these are stressful times, and circumstances may make it difficult for you to exercise at your previous level. Or you might feel yourself pulled into more chiller forms of leisure activity as a way to cope. So cut yourself some slack if you don’t feel quite up to your normal routine right now.
What you can do, though, is experiment with some different forms of movement—maybe a brisk walk while chatting with a friend on the phone, or some at-home workout classes that are new to you (these fitness apps can help)—to see which ones are best for you right now. And if you need a reminder of why movement can be so helpful right now, here are some of the known benefits of exercise.
1. Working out reduces day-to-day stress.
Okay, so exercising isn’t going to be a magic wand to zap your stress away—especially with all that we have to stress about right now. But there is a solid body of research out there to show that working out is a known de-stressor. Harvard Medical School has shown that aerobic exercise helps curb stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline (as long as you’re not overdoing it), while also flooding your system with feel-good endorphins. It also ups the calming, good-mood brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine. So while exercise itself is actually putting low-level physical stress on the body, it can be pretty mentally relaxing.
What’s more, a 2018 study published in Lancet Psychiatry that looked at data from more than 1 million people in the U.S. discovered that people who exercise regularly reported 43% fewer days per month with poor mental health—meaning issues with stress or depressed feelings—than those who don’t work out. Of course, you can look at this two ways: that people who exercise frequently are happier, or that people who are happier end up exercising more frequently. But, hey, it’s worth a shot. The association was strongest in people who worked out from 30 to 60 minutes each session, three to five times per week, the study found.
2. Exercise can make you happier.
Endorphins, right? The link between exercise and happiness has been well-studied, and the results are very positive (just like you may feel after a sweat session). One study from the University of Vermont found that just 20 minutes of exercise can boost your mood for 12 hours. Plus, research published in the journal PLoS One using activity data from more than 10,000 people found that those who engaged in more physical activity during the week felt happier than those who performed less.
Cardio and strength training can both give you a lift, and 30 to 60 minutes of exercise three to five days a week is optimal for mood benefits, according to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
3. Feeling motivated and strong can help you be your most confident self.
Completing a tough workout, especially when you’d much rather stay in bed, can give you a serious confidence boost. Sticking to your plan—especially when it requires a whole lot of flexibility, like converting your gym routine to an at-home workout, or going out for a run when you’re used to using the elliptical—can make you feel like you can take on the world.
Seeing progress can be a huge morale booster too—and that’s not only measured with lifting heavier weight (something that can be hard to challenge yourself with now if you have limited equipment at your disposal). When you finally bang out your first perfect push-up, believe us, you’ll feel like you can take on anything.
4. It might help you think more clearly.
Research indicates that exercise is good for cognitive function—especially helpful now, when many of us are feeling scattered. For example, adults who engaged in an aerobic exercise program for six months improved their scores on tests of executive function (skills that require memory, flexible thinking, and attention), according to a 2019 study published in the journal Neurology. A meta-analysis of 12 studies in Sports Medicine also concluded that strength training can help improve something called cognitive flexibility, or your ability to switch between tasks in your mind.
5. Exercise can energize you.
If you tend to have dips in energy (especially lately!), exercise might actually help with that—as counterintuitive as it sounds. According to a study from the University of Georgia, the blood flow benefits from exercise help carry oxygen and nutrients to muscles, which helps them produce more energy. Researchers found that even low-to-moderate-intensity exercise for just 20 minutes a day, three days a week for six weeks can help improve fatigue and boost energy levels.
6. Exercise can also help some people manage anxiety and depression.
When stress isn’t just stress, exercise can play an important role too. There’s a host of research showing that people with anxiety and depression can find help in working out. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a healthy lifestyle—including getting enough exercise and sleep—can help combat anxiety, especially in conjunction with other treatments like psychotherapy and medication. The institute also recommends physical activity and exercise as a way to feel better during treatment for depression.
That said, exercise should not be considered a stand-alone treatment for mental health conditions—it has not been proved to actually treat a condition in the way therapy or medications can. Plus, it can be really hard to get motivated to exercise when you’re dealing with a mental health crisis. So, know that it’s an option that many people find helpful, but it’s not a substitute for standard mental health care.
7. Exercise can give you structure during a chaotic time.
If you’re one of the many people self-quarantining or social distancing due to the new coronavirus, you may be working from home—and pretty much staying there. That means the hours can start to feel endless, and it may be hard to differentiate work time from non-work time. Exercise can play a huge role there: Starting your day out with a brisk walk or run can help you charge up for your work day, or ending your “office hours” with a workout can help you transition out of work mode. Keeping a regular workout on your schedule can help foster a feeling of normalcy amid the chaos.
8. Exercise can mean better sleep.
Getting your workout in might also help you feel well-rested. In one study of 3,000 subjects published in Mental Health and Physical Activity, people who exercised at least 150 minutes a week were 65% less likely to say they felt overly sleepy during the day than those who exercised less. Plus, a meta-analysis of three previously published studies in the Journal of Evidence Based Medicine concluded that along with improving sleep quality, exercise can also help reduce sleep latency, or the time it takes to nod off. There’s nothing more heavenly than a solid night of sleep (and nothing more rewarding after a tough workout during the day).
9. It can give you an excuse to wear something truly out of character.
Workout clothes are just plain fun—bright colors, wild patterns, and oh-so-comfortable fabric, especially if we’re talking yoga wear. Chances are, you probably have a whole bunch of sports bras, workout tops, and workout leggings just waiting in your drawer (who doesn’t tend to default to the same pair of black leggings each time?) So take inventory of what you have, and see how many amazing new outfit possibilities you can come up with. Challenge yourself to mix colors, combine patterns, and try something you may not have dared at a crowded gym. We all need a little bright spot right now, so why not make your leggings one of them?
10. Exercise helps you show your body some love.
No matter what your reasons for getting your workout on, there’s no doubt that exercise is a way to respect your body. Hey, it does a lot for you! And you’ve got only one—why not treat it like the amazing thing it is?
Nothing beats that postworkout pride high: You came, you saw, you conquered. Getting a workout accomplished is definitely a reason to pat yourself on the back, so be proud! Especially when you had to dig deep for the motivation to do it in the first place.