Exercise can also add other positive benefits to your life. “If you’re physically active, you are probably going to improve your sleep which is then going to have a major impact on how you think and feel,” says Dr. Hays. I can definitely say that my focus group of one has found that daily exercise and a 5:30am wake time lead to a much earlier and consistent bedtime and falling asleep faster.
Moving my body has also led to an increased awareness of what makes it feel good (working out, getting sleep, eating more whole foods) and what makes it feel bad (sitting for too long, being tired, eating junk). That’s not to say that I always do the right thing, but noticing the effects of my choices makes it easier to make healthier ones. “There is a kind of subtle change toward foods that are healthier without necessarily saying I need to eat healthier foods,” says Dr. Hays. “It just becomes part of body awareness and tuning in to what your body needs right now.” (Note: According to my research, Girl Scout cookies are a proven exception to this.)
Exercise as a means to mindfulness
By necessity, most physical activity requires you to pay attention to the here and now—whether it’s watching the scenery on a walk, trying not to fall off a treadmill, or following the steps in a Zumba class. “You kind of have to focus on what you’re doing in the present moment,” says Dr. Lippman-Barile. There is not a lot of opportunity to “ruminate or focus on negative thoughts,” like, say, obsessing about the curt email you sent before leaving the office. “It’s a really nice practice in connecting our mind and body while also training our mind to focus on one thing in one moment,” says Dr. Lippman-Barile. So, that’s a twofer—exercise and mindfulness all in one!
How to start and stick with it
You don’t have to train for a marathon (or even a 5K) or sign up for cycling classes. What matters is finding something you might like and discovering the value of it.
“Motivation doesn’t occur because somebody else says ‘Do this,’” says Dr. Hays. “Motivation occurs because a person has internal evidence that making this change really makes a difference.” The simplest way to do that is to track your mood before and after you move your body.
Whatever you decide to start with—a walk around the block, a jog in a local park, a class at the YMCA—rate your mood on a scale of one to 10 before you begin your activity and jot it down on a piece of paper, in a journal, or on your phone. When you’ve finished, do the same. It should become clear pretty quickly the benefit you are getting. And, if it doesn’t? Try a different form of exercise.
Unlike other kinds of metrics—weight loss, for instance—you should be able to see some progress in your mood right away, which is one of the best ways to stay motivated. “You’re a much better person on the day you exercise. You get turned on to life,” says Dr. Ratey.