August 6, 2014

Movies presenting the image of the ‘dumb jock’ suggest that exercise is not for intelligent people. Despite positive role modelling provided by most elite sports people, media attention publicises the few who persist in drawing headlines through their unsavoury activities. This supports the idea that they lack the intelligence to know how to improve their behaviour.

At the grass roots level, it’s well known that kids who engage in regular sports perform better academically than kids who are sedentary. They also develop better social and team skills than their less active counterparts.

Kids are always encouraged to be more active, but as we get older the encouragement and pressure to exercise drops off.

Adults cite work pressures, family responsibilities, lack of time, and injuries as major stumbling blocks to regular exercise. Memories of negative experiences during teenage years (remember PE classes?) also stop some adults from giving exercise a try.

Of the 43% of adults who are ‘sufficiently active’, many engage in exercise purely for the benefits it brings to the body. Less body fat, improved heart function, greater flexibility, clearer skin, and the release of ‘feel good’ hormones are some of the physical benefits of exercise.

But what about the benefits exercise brings the mind?

There’s no denying the social benefits of exercising with others. Shared goals, cooperation, and the opportunity to have a chat all create bonds which lead to friendship and support and, perhaps just as importantly, a sense of belonging.

For those who prefer to exercise alone, the time can be spent sorting through thoughts and problems, often leading to a clarity of thinking that had otherwise been missing.

Exercise provides an ‘escape’ from the worries of everyday work and life. The focus required to learn new techniques and skills leaves no room to revert focus to other concerns. The feelings of pride and accomplishment at learning and perfecting a new skill, or of setting and reaching a goal, have nothing to do with the body, and everything to do with the positive mindset evoked.

Exercise has an overlap effect into other areas of life, but whether this effect is positive or negative depends on how the exercise is perceived. Recent research showed that people who completed a 2km ‘exercise walk’ ate more food afterwards than those who did the same 2km ‘scenic walk’. It’s amazing what a different mindset can do.

So if exercise can have as positive an impact on the mind as it can have on the body, why aren’t more people doing it?