5 Reasons To Work Out That Have Nothing To Do With A Bikini Body
by Kim Bielak, founder of National Fitness Day
This post was originally published in Breaking Muscle
In 2015 I ran my first half marathon. I went through the literal blood, sweat and tears that one does in such a test of willpower, and when I came out the other side, absolutely amazed at what I had just been through, I knew that the power of fitness was something I needed to share.
I soon came to realize that while people had dedicated many a national holiday to things as holy as the potato chip, despite the increase in half marathoners, boutique fitness-goers, and athleisure aficionados alongside me, no one had yet thought to put National Fitness Day on the calendar. So I took it upon myself, and started the very first as a single day to celebrate strength and empowerment through fitness just last year.
Yet, now having been thrown into the deep-end of the fitness industry, I can’t help but notice that today, rather than talking about fitness as a means of getting harder, better, faster, stronger, many of the trends in the industry continue to center around either bulking up or achieving the perfect bikini body.
You can hardly scroll through Instagram without being subjected to a fitness celebrity six-pack, or transformation photo from someone who’s gone through his or her program. Most worrisome, is that research has shown that photos like these are actually making us feel just as bad, if not worse than images of traditionally thin fashion models in the media.
And so while images like these are meant to show certain results, I want to start to ask, what “results” are we really going for?
When we focus so much on working out as a way to lose weight or look good for someone else in bed, we overlook some of remarkable mental, emotional, and long-term benefits of fitness. So here are just 5 reasons you should care about fitness today that have absolutely nothing to do with your thigh gap.
1. It makes you happier
When you work out, your body naturally increases the release of serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins – chemicals that are quite literally responsible for producing the same euphoric feelings as morphine in your brain. Just a short jog can instantly boost your mood, increase your energy, and even give you a newfound sense of perspective.
But above and beyond a quick runner’s high, exercise has proven in study after study to reduce long-term depression and anxiety as, if not more, effectively than drugs and other forms of therapy. In 2000, a team of researchers at Duke University found that not only was exercise just as effective as drugs in relieving depressive symptoms in the short-term, but patients who exercised were also significantly less likely to see their depression return than those on anti-depressants after six months.
Somehow we’ve managed to give our workouts a terrible reputation as a sort of chore, or punishment for how we ate over the weekend. So I don’t care if it’s Zumba, surfing, or dancing around in your underwear, find a workout you love. Because at the end of the day, it should be making you smile.
2. It makes you smarter
Aerobic exercise increases the flow of blood – and consequently oxygen – directly to the brain, and increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive processes such as planning, decision-making, problem-solving, and attention. Essentially why at some point you may have experienced firsthand how just getting your heart rate up can do wonders to boost your sense of focus and straighten out your thinking.
What’s more, aerobic exercise literally changes the structure of the brain, increasing overall gray matter, and producing new neurons through a process called neurogenesis – something that until relatively recently was widely believed stopped by a certain age.
So the next time you’re working through a problem, stuck on a creative task, or just need a boost in focus, get your blood flowing. After all, as legend has it, even Albert Einstein thought of the theory of general relatively while riding his bicycle.
3. Your older self will thank you
Today over one third of Americans have obesity, a 2X and 3X increase among adults and children, respectively, since the 1980s. And spending the majority of our day stationary at a desk or in front of our smartphones isn’t helping either.
When it comes to long-term health, research has proposed that the right type of physical activity can help reduce your risk of almost two dozen chronic health conditions including but not limited to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, and, for the guys out there, erectile dysfunction.
And exercise doesn’t just help preserve your physical health. It’s undeniably connected to long-term mental health, too. A study from 2014 found that running 15 miles per week decreased the risk of Alzheimer’s by 40%. Even more remarkable? Recent research has shown that a high level of physical activity could decrease the risk of dementia in women almost 90%.
4. It makes you stronger
The hashtag #strongnotskinny has been used on Instagram over 6 million times to-date. But when you look closely, more often than not these posts continue to serve as little more than a new way to suggest how your body should look, only this time it has muscles.
I want to get away from the idea of looking strong, and start focusing on fitness as a way to feel strong.
If you’re anything like me before I started training for my half marathon, then you probably couldn’t run to save your life. After about 4 minutes you’d start running out of breath, and from there you would be on your way to a slow and unpleasant death.
But, it’s also because you wouldn’t have run since your traumatic experiences with the middle school mile, and your legs and your lungs are simply weak AF. Once you start building strength in the right places, run after run you start getting just a bit faster and going incrementally farther.
The human body is more amazing than you might realize. Scientists theorize that we were built for long-distance running as an evolutionary advantage, citing enduring indigenous cultures such as the Tarahumara in Mexico, who often run over 100 miles in a day.
Now, I’m not proposing we all need to add ultra marathons to our regular workout routines, but you know the feeling when you finish something, like carry your groceries up a 4th floor walkup, and feel like you could keep going? I think we all could use a little more of that. By looking at fitness as a way to strengthen our bodies, and celebrate what they can do, fitness can be a remarkable source of empowerment.
As they say, it never gets easier, you just get stronger.
5. It will grow you in more ways than you thought possible
The residual effects of fitness are vast. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, goes as far as to call exercise a “keystone habit,” given its ability to positively influence so many other areas of your life, such as better eating, and even higher productivity at work.
And when we work out, we don’t just strengthen our bodies. We strengthen our sense of growth and resilience.
Stanford University professor Carol Dweck has studied children’s attitudes about failure for over 30 years, and concludes that there are two types of mindsets we see the world through: a fixed mindset (“I’m naturally smart,” “I’m not a runner,”) and a growth mindset (“If I work at it, I can get better.”)
Because fitness provides an observable and often quantifiable way of measuring our progress each time we run a bit farther or find that we add a bit more weight, we learn that when things get hard, we don’t just quit, or believe it’s because we can’t do it. We keep working at it, because we believe that we are strong, and we are just as capable as the next person.
So today I want to call for us to stop selling fitness through the promise of a bikini body, and to start working out to be good to our bodies, feel strong and empowered in our bodies, and to be grateful for what our bodies can do.
This May 5, we’ll celebrate our second annual National Fitness Day in the US. I hope you’ll join us in getting some endorphins in, sharing your own journey with #NationalFitnessDay, and spreading the word about what fitness can really do for you.
Kim Bielak founded National Fitness Day in 2017 as a platform to inspire and empower others through the power of fitness. For more information on how you can get involved in National Fitness Day, visit nationalfitnessday.org.