Why Do People Consistently Exercise?

Why Do People Consistently Exercise?

Why do people exercise? It must be for the benefits of exercise, right? But what is the greatest benefit of exercise? Is it that exercise boosts heart health? Perhaps. Or, is it that improves body composition? Maybe. The truth is that the answer to that question largely depends on whom you ask.

If you ask a person who is at risk for heart disease, they will probably reply that the heart health benefits are the best benefits of exercise. If you ask someone who just lost 40 pounds throughout an exercise program, they will probably point toward the body composition benefits as supreme. That’s the great thing about making exercise part of your life; there are so many awesome benefits of it. In fact, there are many benefits that you probably don’t even think about when you decide to start a program.

For instance, I can’t tell you how many clients and gym members have explained that they began working out to lose weight and get in shape, but they keep coming back because of the way it makes them feel. In fact, if you ask me, the greatest benefits of exercise have very little to do with how it makes me look. It is all about how it makes me feel. I’m long past the days of flexing in the mirror and getting my spring break beach bod ready (though I do miss those days from time to time). At this point, the only thing keeping me in the gym 4 – 6 days a week would be considered ancillary benefits to most people. It’s not easy to measure the degree to which consistent exercise results in better productivity at work, but it does. I can’t just jump on the scale and see how much stress I’ve lost, but I did. You can’t pull out a tape measure and give a measurement of the anxiety that you’ve lost, but it’s more manageable after a workout.

We know quite a bit about the physical benefits of exercise; how and why exercise-induced stress changes the structure and function of cells and the end results associated with that.

But the “how” and “why” of the psychological benefits of exercise seem a bit more elusive. There are undoubtedly many reasons why exercise makes people feel good, but one of the ones that sticks out to me is that exercise helps to develop an internal base of control. We can’t and don’t control very much in our lives. Even the things that we think we can control are often truly out of our hands. However, successful, happy people almost always seem to at least think that they have a high degree of autonomy or control in their lives. They believe that the things that happen in their life are a result of their skills, choices, and efforts.

A person with an external base of control blames the outside world for their shortcomings and credits luck with their success. In contrast, a person with an internal base of control blames their lack of effort or skill for their shortcomings and in turn credits their own work ethic or developed skill set with their successes. Consistent exercise helps to develop this internal locus of control in two very important ways:

  1. When you program out a challenging workout before you hit the gym then complete it exercise-by-exercise, set-by-set, rep-by-rep, you develop a sense that you are in control of that workout. This may be the only thing that you are in control of the entire day, but for that one-hour time period, you’re absolutely in control. This feels good, and over time it begins to permeate other aspects of your life.
  2. As you stick with your exercise routine over time you will begin to see physical results, which also reinforces the idea that you are in control of your life – this time in the form of your body. Your efforts, not some outside force, developed those physical results. You get the credit.

While this theory that exercise develops an internal base of control is a very important one, it’s still only one part of why exercise makes you feel good. The best book that I’ve read on the topic is Dr. John Ratey’s Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain. I recommend this book to any fitness professional, or any person, really. It’s a revealing documentation and explanation of how and why exercise works to help people with stress, anxiety, depression, and so on.

The physical benefits of exercise are undeniable and extremely important, but what gets most people to consistently hit the gym, day in and day out, is the feeling they get from doing so. When you work with a new client/trainer, try to shift focus from the long-term, seemingly out-of-reach goal to the immediate feel-good reward of completing a workout. That’s what makes exercise stick.

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Matthew Johnson is a fitness writer, personal trainer, strength coach, as well as a former gym owner. Matthew holds an MBA from The University of Memphis and a Master’s in Exercise Science from Middle Tennessee State University. Matthew has also earned the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist credential from the NSCA. Matthew recently published his first book, 300 30 Minute Workouts for Busy People, and lives in Memphis, TN with his wife, Anna, and their dog Henderson, and cat, Sox.

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