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Whether exercise is a passion or a labor of love you force yourself to do to stay healthy we all understand the benefits of exercise for cardiovascular health and building muscle but there are many other benefits to your health, body, mind and well-being. Scientists are learning more about how exercise boosts brain function. These benefits happen for all ages and fitness levels to provide you mental benefits. Here are unexpected ways that working out can benefit mental health, relationships, and lead to a healthier and happier life overall.

1. Stress Reduction. Having a stressful day? Take a walk or get a quick workout. One of the most common mental benefits of exercise is stress relief. Sweating can help manage physical and mental stress. Exercise increases concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate the brain’s response to stress. Working out reduces stress and boost the body’s ability to deal with existing mental tension.

2. Stimulating your “Happy” Hormones. Exercise releases endorphins, which create feelings of happiness and euphoria. Studies have shown that exercise can alleviate symptoms among the clinically depressed. Docs recommend that people suffering from depression or anxiety (or those who are just feeling blue) pencil in plenty of gym time. In some cases, exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant pills in treating depression. It’s possible to improve your happiness by working out for just 30 minutes a few times a week to instantly boost overall mood.

3. Increased self-confidence. Hop on the treadmill to look (and more importantly, feel) great. Physical fitness can boost self-esteem and improve positive self-image. Regardless of weight, size, gender, or age, exercise can quickly elevate a person’s perception of his or her attractiveness and self-worth.

4. Enjoyment of the outdoors. Exercising in the great outdoors can increase self-esteem even more. Find an outdoor workout that fits your style, whether it’s rock-climbing, hiking, renting a canoe, or just taking a jog in the park. Plus, all that Vitamin D acquired from soaking up the sun can lessen the likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms. Why book a spa day when a little fresh air and sunshine (and exercise) can work wonders for self-confidence and happiness?

Prevent cognitive/mental decline. As we get older, our brains get foggier. As aging and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s kill off brain cells, the brain shrinks, losing many important brain functions in the process. While exercise and a healthy diet can’t “cure” Alzheimer’s, they can help shore up the brain against cognitive decline that begins after age 45. Working out, especially between age 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning.

6. Alleviate anxiety. The warm and fuzzy chemicals that are released during and after exercise can help people with anxiety disorders calm down. Hopping on the track or treadmill for some moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety sensitivity.

7. Boost brainpower. Various studies on mice and men have shown that cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells (aka neurogenesis) and improve overall brain performance. Studies suggest that a tough workout increases levels of a brain-derived protein (known as BDNF) in the body, believed to help with decision making, higher thinking, and learning.

8. Sharpen memory. Regular physical activity boosts memory and ability to learn new things. Getting sweaty increases production of cells in hippocampus responsible for memory and learning. For this reason, research has linked children’s brain development with level of physical fitness. But exercise-based brainpower isn’t just for kids. Even if it’s not as fun as a game of Red Rover, working out can boost memory among grown-ups, too. A study showed that running sprints improved vocabulary retention among healthy adults.

9. Help control addiction. The brain releases dopamine, the “reward chemical” in response to any form of pleasure (exercise, sex, drugs, alcohol, or food). Unfortunately, some people become addicted to dopamine and dependent on the substances that produce it, like drugs or alcohol (and more rarely, food and sex). Exercise can help in addiction recovery. Short exercise sessions can effectively distract drug or alcohol addicts, making them de-prioritize cravings (at least in the short term). Working out during recovery has other benefits, too. Alcohol abuse disrupts many body processes, including circadian rhythms. As a result, alcoholics find they can’t fall asleep (or stay asleep) without drinking. Exercise can help reboot the body clock, helping people hit the hay at the right time.

10. Relaxation. A moderate workout can be the equivalent of a sleeping pill, even for people with insomnia. Moving around five to six hours before bedtime raises the body’s core temperature. When the body temp drops back to normal a few hours later, it signals the body that it’s time to sleep.

11. Get more done. Research shows that workers who take time for exercise on a regular basis are more productive and have more energy than their more sedentary peers. While busy schedules can make it tough to squeeze in a gym session in the middle of the day, some experts believe that midday is the ideal time for a workout due to the body’s circadian rhythms.

12. Tap into creativity. A heart-pumping gym session can boost creativity for up to two hours afterwards. Supercharge post-workout inspiration by exercising outdoors and interacting with nature. Next time you need a burst of creative thinking, hit the trails for a long walk or run to refresh the body and the brain at the same time.

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