Finding Meaning in Movement


We all know that exercise is good for our physical health. A growing body of research is revealing that physical activity also has powerful implications for our mental health. If you follow my blog, you know that I regularly discuss the importance of existential health: people need to feel like they are living meaningful lives. Might physical exercise boost our existential health? The research says yes.

For example, research has established that exercise is good for mood. People are happier after they engage in physical exercise and there is evidence that exercise can help with depression (a disorder related to chronic negative mood). In fact, a number of scientists have argued that clinicians should consider prescribing exercise as part of a treatment plan for patients with depression. Critically, studies have demonstrated that people are more likely to perceive their lives as meaningful when they are in a good mood. When you are happy, it is easier to appreciate life and to feel like it is worthwhile. Thus, by boosting mood, exercise may boost meaning.

Research also suggests that exercise may help people combat anxiety. Similarly, many people use exercise to manage stress. And anxiety and stress can compromise existential health: people are less likely to perceive life as meaningful when they are experiencing anxiety and stress. Thus, by offering relief from stress and anxiety, exercise may promote existential health.

In addition, exercise can promote social bonds and social bonds promote existential health. Of course people often exercise alone. However, it is also quite common for working out to be a social activity. Want to make new connections? Try signing up for a yoga or spin class or finding a local running group. Take dance lessons or martial arts. Or join a local adult soccer or softball league.  Even going to the weight room at the gym regularly each week will afford you an opportunity to make new friends.

Finally, research indicates that exercise can improve self-esteem and self-esteem is highly associated with existential health. When people feel good about themselves, they also feel like their lives are meaningful.

It is worth noting that the relationship between exercise and self-esteem can be complicated. For example, studies suggest that for women the relationship between exercise and self-esteem depends on the motives for exercise and attitudes towards one’s body. If women are exercising purely out of concerns about their physical appearance and they are not satisfied with their bodies, exercise can be associated with low self-esteem.  In general, exercise is more likely to be associated with positive self-esteem if people are exercising for health and fitness and not solely to improve body image.

Many exercise enthusiasts will tell you that their daily workouts are a critical part of maintaining their mental health and well-being. Exercise regulates mood and helps people cope with the challenges of life. There are good reasons to also believe that exercise helps people in their quest for meaning in life. So exercise. It is good for your existential health.

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