Image from Pexels

Image from Pexels

For as long as I can remember, I have been told to exercise. When I was little, it was my parents encouraging me to “go outside and run around.” Sometime around middle school, gym teachers were the ones getting me up and moving. And now, it seems exercising is up to me. But why is exercise so deeply engrained in us? Of course, the physical benefits of movement are clear. Stretching, running, and playing sports all help you gain strength and maintain or lose weight. For a long time, these physical gains were the sole reason that I got myself up and moving. At some point, though, I realized that exercise is undoubtedly the best way to clear my mind. The mental benefits of physical activity are much more impressive than I had first assumed.

Coping With Stress and Anxiety 

For most students, school is an endless source of stress; as soon as one big test is over or one paper written, the next is assigned. Because of this constant influx of work, managing stress in a healthy way is super important. It may come as no surprise to you that exercise is one of the best ways to stop worrying. Norepinephrine, a bodily chemical that regulates the brain’s response to stress, is released when you get moving. Producing it will help clear your mind so that you can focus on what has to be done without those overwhelming feelings of dread. Exercise has also been shown to help cope with serious anxiety. Although many may view a Netflix marathon or a night at home as the best way to relax, these methods aren’t effective in dealing with the root of the problem. Exercise, on the other hand, is a surefire (and cheap!) way to tackle those nerves.

Sometimes during the school week, I’ll have days where my mind feels like it’s about to explode. While I’m sweating, though, my mind is free from school and everything else causing me worry. Most of the time, I’m just thinking about making it through the workout. Little did I know that this peace of mind continues post-workout: for a few hours after exercising, chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are still produced. Your brain is continually flooded with this sense of calm that will help you stay focused for hours to come. Regular exercise can only compound these awesome effects and leave you feeling stress-free until bedtime. That so-called “runner’s high” is real, and it hangs around long after the jog is over.

Time Management and Productivity Levels 

Those lingering chemicals in the brain can also boost productivity levels. While it’s most tempting to take a break from schoolwork with a snack or “just one episode” of Breaking Bad (don’t act like you’ve never done it), hopping on the treadmill is your best bet in the long run. Workers who regularly exercise have been shown to produce better quality output in less time. If you can manage that too, you may still manage to squeeze in time for Netflix before bed.

Your memory can even be sharpened by physical activity. Regions in the hippocampus, which helps with retaining fleeting thoughts, are stimulated by continued movement. Over time, they are strengthened and improved. These benefits continue with age, for a strong hippocampus will keep your mind sharp as you grow old. Exercising is important throughout life, of course, but these effects take hold mainly beyond age twenty-five. Regular exercise is a small price to pay if it means that you’ll be the sharpest senior on the block.

Working up a sweat is hard work, that’s for sure. For many people, doing Zumba or going for a swim isn’t necessarily their favorite way to spend an afternoon. But take it from someone who used to absolutely despise anything fitness-related: the hardest part is getting started. Once you’re halfway through a set in the pool, your mind is empty and you feel like a million bucks. The more you do it, the easier it will become. So next time you feel like collapsing under the weight of your homework, go for a walk instead. You’ll come back ready to tackle whatever comes your way.



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Sophie Stadler is a freshman at Columbia University. When she's not putzing around on the computer, she enjoys reading about fonts and eating bagels.

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