How do you choose your workouts? Do you follow a predetermined workout program, or do you wing it depending on how you feel each day?
Do you perform specific exercises because your coach told you to, or do you switch them up when you’re feeling like doing something different?
There are many reasons to choose specific types of workouts and exercises, and, of course, all of them are perfectly valid.
However, it is worth reflecting on why you exercise so that you can better understand where your motivation comes from and how that might affect your training, which in turn can affect your physical and mental health.
The Multiple Benefits of Exercise
Everyone talks about the obvious benefits of physical activity, such as increased caloric expenditure, which can help us maintain or reach a healthy weight or protect and even help treat chronic diseases. Depending on the type of physical activity, we can improve our strength, endurance, muscle size, and more.
But there are other measures that can also be improved by physical activity – mental health outcomes, such as mood, decreased likelihood of depression, and increased academic and work performance can all be improved by exercise.
The link between physical activity is not new; evidence that exercise can improve substance abuse, self-image, cognitive functioning, anxiety, social skills has been around for decades1. Now, research has shown that specific types of exercise may be particularly helpful for improving mental health outcomes.
But before we dive into the benefits of specific activity types, let’s briefly review how our motivation to exercise can influence the benefits that we achieve.
Generally, motivation comes from both intrinsic or extrinsic factors. Intrinsic motivation is driven purely by pleasure. Whatever makes you feel good, what happens when you “follow your heart” or “listen to your body” – this provides intrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from any external factor. Wanting to win a prize, make someone else happy, gain strength or muscle, beat your last time – these all provide extrinsic motivation.
Many people confuse these terms and think that doing something for YOU makes it intrinsic, but that is not the case. You can do something for yourself but also be extrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation is only for pure pleasure. Anything else is extrinsic.
Research has shown that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be helpful in reaching fitness-related goals such as going to the gym2 and following general diet and exercise guidelines3.
It’s important to note which type of motivation helps you achieve your goals and whether it varies under different circumstances. For instance, you might find that you’re motivated by a bodybuilding competition when it comes to weightlifting, but you’re motivated by how good you feel when it comes to cardio.
Why are we taking this detour into understanding types of motivation? Understanding your motivation can lead to a better understanding of why you like to choose certain exercises or aspire to achieve training goals. Whether you’re hoping to win a competition or just to feel good, you can harness your motivation to get the most out of your training.
Now that we have considered motivation, let’s review how different activity types that you might be motivated to perform can impact physical and mental health.
Resistance training is generally accepted as the most effective way to increase strength and build muscle, but there are other health benefits as well. One-rep max training has been shown to reduce anxiety and insomnia, in addition to decreasing risk factors for falls, fractures, and lifestyle related diseases4.
Muscular strength is associated with overall quality of life5. This means that not only can the act of weightlifting improve mental health outcomes, but the physical benefits themselves, i.e. increased muscular strength, may also improve mental health outcomes. Tying this back to motivation, you can see how weightlifting has the potential to reward both extrinsic (e.g. gaining muscle) and intrinsic (e.g. feeling good) motivation.
The most obvious benefit of cardio is the potential for improved cardiovascular health, but, as with weightlifting, cardio can also improve mental health and body composition6. Given the link between positive psychosocial well-being (e.g. optimism) and heart health, it makes sense that cardio exercise can improve both7.
Interestingly, when it comes to cardio and mental health, it might not matter how far or how often you run or how well you perform but just that you do it at all8!
Various forms of movement and balance, such as yoga, tai chi, stretching, walking, and martial arts, have been used for thousands of years to help focus and enter altered states of consciousness.
Research has proven some of these benefits as well. For example, yoga has been shown to improve overall wellness, exhaustion, and stress9. Often, these forms of exercise are done outdoors, which can provide additional mental health benefits10. Note that the other forms of exercise mentioned in this article can be performed outdoors for these additional benefits as well.
In addition to the built-in health benefits of physical activity, team sports and exercise classes offer benefits that come from socializing and being part of a group.
Social support and social relationships can improve both psychological and physical well-being through mechanisms such as fostering senses of belonging, purpose, control, and self-esteem11.
Putting it into Practice
When deciding what to do for your exercise today, think about the possible benefits associated with various types of exercise. Are you trying to increase your one-rep max for a competition? Do you want to grow your biceps? Are you going for your bodybuilding pro card? Do you simply feel like lifting weights today?
If we understand why we are choosing what we do, we can reflect on whether the benefits we are getting are the ones we need. If you’re having trouble sleeping or concentrating, don’t be scared to go for a new type of exercise (or a rest day) simply because it feels right. A short run or a walk might be what you need to clear your mind and feel good about the day.
On the other hand, you might need to get started on a set program to help guide yourself toward the benefits you’re looking for, whether they be related to physical or mental health or something else altogether.
Sample Training Split for Physical and Mental Health*
- Day 1: Upper Body Strength
- Day 2: Lower Body Strength
- Day 3: Outdoor Walk
- Day 4: Upper Body Hypertrophy
- Day 5: Lower Body Hypertrophy
- Day 6: Outdoor Run
- Day 7: Group Exercise Class
*Adjust as necessary depending on how you feel each day.
Of course, it’s always important to keep in mind that each one of us is different. The main takeaway is that exercise can benefit you in more ways than just one (improving physical health). Take time to reflect on your own motivations and benefits to be able to choose what will truly provide what you’re looking to achieve.
Training for physical and mental health should be linked12. Individuals with mental health conditions are more likely to develop physical health conditions and have higher mortality rates13.
Physical and mental health are not two distinct aspects of our health but rather overlapping conditions that should be considered together in order to maximize overall health and well-being.
Many of us get caught up in chasing end goals, thinking we’ll be happy when we win the competition or game or lose or gain 5 lbs. Don’t be afraid to find comfort in the here and now.
- Taylor CB, Sallis JF, Needle R. The relation of physical activity and exercise to mental health. Public Health Rep. 1985;100(2):195-202.
- Pope L, Harvey J. The impact of incentives on intrinsic and extrinsic motives for fitness-center attendance in college first-year students. Am J Health Promot. 2015;29(3):192-199. doi:10.4278/ajhp.140408-QUAN-135
- Oftedal B, Bru E, Karlsen B. Motivation for diet and exercise management among adults with type 2 diabetes. Scand J Caring Sci. 2011;25(4):735-744. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6712.2011.00884.x
- Unhjem R, Flemmen G, Hoff J, Wang E. Maximal strength training as physical rehabilitation for patients with substance use disorder; a randomized controlled trial. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2016;8:7. doi:10.1186/s13102-016-0032-2
- Warburton DE, Gledhill N, Quinney A. Musculoskeletal fitness and health. Can J Appl Physiol. 2001;26(2):217-237.
- Ghorbani F, Heidarimoghadam R, Karami M, Fathi K, Minasian V, Bahram ME. The effect of six-week aerobic training program on cardiovascular fitness, body composition and mental health among female students. J Res Health Sci. 2014;14(4):264-267.
- Boehm JK, Kubzansky LD. The heart’s content: the association between positive psychological well-being and cardiovascular health. Psychol Bull. 2012;138(4):655-691. doi:10.1037/a0027448
- Szabo A, Abrahám J. The psychological benefits of recreational running: a field study. Psychol Health Med. 2013;18(3):251-261. doi:10.1080/13548506.2012.701755
- Lindahl E, Tilton K, Eickholt N, Ferguson-Stegall L. Yoga reduces perceived stress and exhaustion levels in healthy elderly individuals. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2016;24:50-56. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2016.05.007
- Thompson Coon J, Boddy K, Stein K, Whear R, Barton J, Depledge MH. Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environ Sci Technol. 2011;45(5):1761-1772. doi:10.1021/es102947t
- Thoits PA. Mechanisms linking social ties and support to physical and mental health. J Health Soc Behav. 2011;52(2):145-161. doi:10.1177/0022146510395592
- Glew S, Chapman B. Closing the gap between physical and mental health training. Br J Gen Pract. 2016;66(651):506-507. doi:10.3399/bjgp16X687157
- Doherty AM, Gaughran F. The interface of physical and mental health. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2014;49(5):673-682. doi:10.1007/s00127-014-0847-7