The Mental Costs of Being Physically Inactive

The old maxim “a healthy body is a healthy mind” has been held as folk wisdom for so long that it just seems like commonsense at this point. Yet, after breaking up with a loved one, experiencing stress at work, or feeling anxiety about an upcoming exam, the last thing we want to do are some push-ups, or hit up the gym, or take a short jog.

Sometimes the more the mental distress, the more we just want to curl up in a ball or vegetate in front of the TV – even though this is exactly the opposite of what we need.

Modern research continues to beat us over the head with increasing evidence of physical health being intricately correlated with mental health and cognitive sharpness. But instead of following our intellect, we remain apathetic, lazy, or sleepy whenever the mental-going gets too tough.

I could give you a whole list of news and research claiming the mental benefits of physical exercise, but you already know all this – don’t you, smartie, so why don’t you do it?

I’ve written some tips before about how to stay committed to a change in behavior, but maybe it’s because of how people frame the advice that attributes to its inefficacy. A doctor or psychologist could say, “Hey, look at all these benefits you will get if you exercise more often,” but you might decline to follow this advice because life right now is already “tolerable,” and you don’t see any urgency to change your habits.

It is unfortunate, but most people don’t feel the need to change anything about their life until the problem has reached a point of critical mass. We wait until we have absolutely no other options left – and then we seek change (sometimes after it is already too late). This means our actions are often motivated more by avoiding pain, rather than seeking rewards. We ask ourselves, “What happens if I don’t do X?” and if we imagine something awful happening then we will do it.

What if instead of framing physical exercise as a positive, we framed physical inactivity as a negative? Then, ask yourself, “Whenever I am depressed, stressed, or anxious, what happens if I choose the couch instead of the gym? What happens every week I don’t run a mile or do my hour-long yoga session? What costs are contingent with those inactions?”

Whenever we spend extended periods of time not working out our bodies (in one form or another) we risk a decline in our mental state as well. Sometimes it can develop without us even realizing it: our attention-skills may not be as sharp as they could be, we may experience self-confidence issues which could otherwise be avoided, or we may be more anxious than usual during a job interview. Life could be better, but we aren’t usually aware of it.

Some individuals are reward-seeking, but, for others, reframing this desired behavior can lead to a different motivational charge. We know what to do. We know the benefits of exercise on mental health. Now let’s find a way to do it and be consistent. Whatever it takes to get yourself out of bed and active – do it – because we know it’s important, even if you have to imagine yourself being fat, lonely, stupid, and depressed 10 or 20 years down the line.

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