Exercise really delivers what comfort food only promises

When you feel bad—just normal stress, or perhaps another kind of emotional distress—physical activity helps. Here are some of the benefits:

Unlike trying to find comfort in comfort food, moving the body actually does provide a real distraction—and real relief—from discomfort, and depending on what you’re doing, physical effort can relax the mind as well as the body.

Studies confirm the reports that exercise makes people feel better; one 10 minute exercise session improves mood (if it’s not more strenuous than you’re used to–an important caveat). After exercising, people react less severely to stressors, and the effect is cumulative: that is, people become less reactive to stress as they make a regular habit of exercise. This applies as well to people experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, and depression.

Long-term benefits of exercise include better memory and cognitive function, and more creativity. (The creativity study tested problem solving while walking vs. standing still.) Another benefit is the association with better sleep, as long as you make sure you allow time to relax before bed.

As we age, there’s a host of particularly important benefits—whether or not we’ve been life-long couch potatoes. Take sleep, for example: after 4 months of regular exercise, previously sedentary adults were falling asleep faster, and sleeping better and longer.

Other benefits important to older adults include healthier aging, meaning it helps prevent chronic disease, depression, disability, and memory loss. And it can reverse age-related declines in muscle mass and strength.

But do remember that, while we can visualize ourselves as the gazelles floating around the track, we still need to start where we are, not where we wish we were. I’m a great walker, but if I wanted to become a runner, I’d have to start at ground zero, with the easy stuff.

If that’s you, too, there’s lots of info online (just Google beginning runner) and there are communities of runners (check running shoe stores). If you are in Whatcom County, like me, I can pass on a recommendation from a long-time runner for checking out the Fit School in Bellingham. And, whether you’re that ambitious or not at all, don’t forget Parkscriptions, especially if you’d like to combine exercise with meeting other health-minded people.

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