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Why Exercise is an Essential Part of Living a Good Life

Temptation can be dangerous. It can pull us off the path to a healthy and meaningful life and lead us down very dark roads: to reckless financial decisions, to substance abuse, to failed relationships.

Not to be dramatic, but giving into temptation — giving into the illusory need for instant emotional or physical gratification — can ruin lives.

But there is a simple way to help combat temptation: physical exercise. Evidence shows that it mitigates depression and anxiety, it improves memory, and leads to an increase in self-control.

Working out also increases self-esteem, and the higher your self-esteem, the more attainable your goals in life appear to you. People with higher self-esteem meet challenges in life with more optimism, and they are more likely to gut it out when the going gets hard.

This leads to a positive cycle: Because you are more willing to face challenges in life, to put yourself into uncomfortable situations in order to achieve your goals, you are far more likely to actually do those things, which leads to genuine accomplishment. And as you see yourself accomplish difficult things — like a difficult workout — you will have confidence to pursue slightly more difficult challenges in other areas of your life. A little self-esteem can go a long way.

Those struggling with mental health know the toll it takes on your confidence. Anxiety and depression are two major obstacles to achieving anything in life — let alone finding your purpose and your identity, and they are among the most common health issues that Americans face. People with depression are more willing to give into more negative temptations in life, like alcohol or simply junk food.

Depression makes people withdraw from the world, withdraw from life’s challenges, and, skeptical of any possibility of positive change, those people preemptively shut the door to their own future.

Existential psychoanalyst Rollo May once said that depression is the inability to construct a future. Depression is a dark veil that obstructs the ability to see anything positive on the horizon. Exercise can significantly help to lift that veil.

While lifting weights, running, and calisthenics might not completely replace a person’s need for medication or other serious professional intervention, the effects of exercise do show remarkably similar outcomes to medications used to treat various mental illnesses and disorders.

Harvard medical school professor of psychiatry, John Ratey, says that a bout of (aerobic) exercise is like taking a little bit of Ritalin and a little bit of Prozac. Ritalin is a drug used to treat ADHD — it decreases impulsivity and increases attention span — while Prozac, of course, is an antidepressant.

Staying on the right path — or simply staying off the wrong one — is a result of the decisions we make every day. The decision to exercise may feel like a difficult one, but if you can make it, if you can accomplish that one small, difficult goal, the positive benefits of it will be exponential.

Exercise isn’t magic, and it won’t by itself change your life. But coupled with the right mindset, it will lead to better choices in the long run, and those choices will help determine the quality of your life.


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