Fitness: Are fit people happier?

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The fitness column is written by personal trainer, Idris Aura.

Love it or hate it, making regular exercise a habit is known to promote optimal health. While many people grimace at the thought of sweat, spandex, and sit-ups, exercise may be a prescription for more than just keeping the doctor away. Some research suggests there’s a link between physical fitness and happiness. But the question remains: can we exercise ourselves happiness?

Happiness is a pretty subjective concept. But researchers think happiness has to do with genetics and a range of environmental factors like income, marital status, religion, health and education. And one huge predictor of personal happiness is physical health. The ability to ward off sickness and disease, maintain a hormonal balance and manage stress, all contribute to self-satisfaction. That’s one reason people who work out might be happier than the rest of us – exercise stimulates the production of disease-fighting proteins known as antibodies, which destroy unwelcome invaders like bacteria and viruses.

People who stay physically active are generally better equipped to combat sickness and stress, a key component of happiness. During physical exercise, the brain also releases endorphins, chemicals known to produce feelings of euphoria, commonly associated with a “runner’s high.” Endorphins trigger the release of sex hormones, such as norepinephrine, which enhance mood and create a sense of well-being.

Exercise can also boost happiness levels by helping to reduce stress. When we exercise, our bodies burn the stress hormone cortisol. Too much stress, and high cortisol levels, can increase feelings of nervousness and anxiety while decreasing motivation and immune function. It’s not clear that a certain amount of exercise can guarantee happiness, or even a short-term high. Numerous research in associated with depression and stress say up-to 30 minutes of training can bring about a sense of wellbeing and positive vibe.

So, exercise can help reduce depression and anger. But, unfortunately, fitness fanatics aren’t guaranteed stress-free living either. Exercise may contribute to happiness, but it’s not the only cause of a smiling face. While physical activity is among the factors that have the biggest influence on our sense of well-being, it’s also important to have a sense of belonging and purpose, financial security, and positive social interactions.

Plus, it’s possible that happy people tend to exercise more than others and that working out doesn’t necessarily make them happy. In the case of depression, it’s also unclear whether physical inactivity causes negative feelings or vice versa. Depressed people often fall into a cycle in which they avoid exercise, then feel blue, and then really don’t want to exercise. It can be hard to find motivation to break out of that cycle.

There are also certain situations when exercise can contribute to unhappiness, like in the case of exercise addiction, and gym goers who tend to overdo or lack the simple knowledge of how the body works in response to exercise. Naturally the body stimulate the brain’s reward centre and the relevant organs release “happy hormones” which is behind the pleasurable feeling associated with the release of this chemicals called endorphins. So, some fitness enthusiasts tend to continue exercising despite injury, fatigue, or even the threat of a heart attack due to the feel good effect associated with exercise.

Whether happiness is among the many benefits of exercise or not, it’s probably still worth taking a jog around the neighbourhood or a spin on the bike. If nothing else, the change of scenery may be just the mood boost we need. Working out keeps us healthy, reduces stress, and even provides a short-term high. But remember exercise isn’t a cure for more serious issues, like depression, which needs right medical intervention. Chain of factors that affect and support the human wellbeing are well documented. Fit people cultivate habits that probably should be spread aloud.

  1. Priorities
    “If it’s important in your life then probably you will find time and do it,” says Jack Bizz, one of Stavanger’s sought after model and fitness enthusiast. We all want those fine things in life but are we ready to earn them.
  2. Moderation works
    The myth that ultra-fit people don’t enjoy a drink from time to time, and live on nothing but chicken, broccoli and brown rice is just that – a myth. “One thing I’ve found that separates people who’ve been more successful with maintaining their fitness and physique, is embracing moderation in their nutrition. In other words, they follow the 85/15 rule”. This means that if 85 percent of the time you eat in the way that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, high-quality meats, eggs and fish, while limiting processed food, simple sugar, hydrogenated oil and alcohol, and, if you’re eating four meals a day, that’s one of your meals every two days. This strategy is the very definition of moderation. That’s how moderation works and no to yo-yo diets.
  3. Brownie or a can of beer?
    Fit people recover quickly from a relapse, but they don’t allow slip-ups to completely derail them. I have noticed most successful and fit clients that have a good relapse plan. These fit people who have maintained a high level of fitness over the long haul don’t give themselves permission to go on a “food bender,” or a month long hiatus from hitting the gym or exercising if they deviate from their normal nutrition style or miss one workout. Savvy fit folks don’t allow the wheels to totally come off the tracks. “Unfortunately, most people have adopted an all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to our fat loss and health goals”. Eat a brownie, enjoy every bite of it and drink your cold beer too, but not to over indulge.
  4. Over analysing fitness
    Fit people avoid “Analysis Paralysis”. If you want to live your fittest life, your workout plan needs to be uncomplicated and straightforward. Overanalysing every little aspect of your workouts, attempting to take on programs that are too advanced and hopping from one program to the next often leads to frustration and feeling overwhelmed. The people who stay the most consistent with their workouts keep it manageable and simple. We all live busy lives, and making things overly complicated in the gym can lead to burnout and apathy. Behavioural scientist, James Jordan, advises against becoming preoccupied with technicalities. “Stick to keeping a simple mind and seeking basic solutions”.
  5. Look for fun instead
    Not all training programs are linked to weight-loss. The most successful long termers don’t look at exercise as the only weight-loss tool, instead they gauge the effectiveness of their training program on improvements in strength and performance, not on how much weight they’re losing. Those who do see the value in their workouts understand the role nutrition plays in fat loss (it’s huge!) and don’t stop training because the scale number hasn’t moved much.

Accept that diet changes are what primarily drive fat loss, and the primary objective of a good training program is to enhance fitness and performance. You’ll be far happier if you adopt this mind-set and will stay more consistent with your workouts.

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