Seaworthiness has nothing to do with how you look

Many people in the fitness industry are fundamentally wrong to say the reason to exercise is to lose weight and look better. I'm happy to stick my hand up and admit that I, too, was guilty of selling this outdated ideal.

But in doing so we've all missed a major opportunity to 'sell' exercise to a much wider audience. Here are six benefits of exercise that have nothing to do with physique.

1. Physical activity improves brain power

Fact: Regular exercise results in neurogenesis (growing more brain cells).

Playing Sudoku on the weekend might flex your mental muscle, but if you really want to be smarter your time is better spent pounding the pavement. Research shows that exercise helps prevent age-related decrease in brain matter, enhances cognitive flexibility and reduces the risk of dementia.

From your late 20s you begin to lose about 1 per cent of your hippocampal volume each year. This is the area of your brain involved in memory and learning. The good news is that exercise helps prevent this physical decline by kick-starting neurogenesis - building new brain cells.

Most brain changes have occurred from endurance exercise, such as walking or running, but all forms of physical activity provide benefits. A 2012 study published in The Journal of Neurology showed higher levels of physical activity reduces the risk of Alzheimer's Disease.

2. Physical activity boosts energy

Fact: Exercise builds more mitochondria (responsible for producing energy in the body).

When you feel foggy and fatigued at work, the last thing you feel like doing is exercise. However, even a small dose of exercise - as little as 20 minutes - dramatically boosts your energy. 

A University of Georgia study reported sedentary people who normally complained of chronic lethargy could increase their energy by 20 per cent and decrease fatigue by as much as 65 per cent by participating in regular, low-intensity exercise.


Aerobic exercise increases the number of mitochondria in our cells, which are responsible for producing energy the body can use. 

3. Physical activity builds a buffer for retirement

Fact: Exercise improves the quality and experience of your life post-retirement.

The average person hits their physical peak around 30 years of age, and if you don't exercise regularly, you start to lose muscle and gain fat more easily after that.

Around 55, people experience the 'double dip' – the body is less efficient at breaking down protein, and there is also a drop in lean body mass. This leads to a drop in metabolic rate, contributing to an expanding waistline and increased risk of chronic disease. You may notice things stop working as well – ankles, knees, back pain, and shoulder problems set in.

A few years ago Ralph Norris, the former Commonwealth Bank CEO, spoke after me at an insurance broker conference. "Why is it that we spend all of our health accumulating wealth, then retire and spend our wealth trying to claw back our health?," he asked. 

The message is clear: make movement a lifelong habit, and enjoy an active and colourful retirement.

4. Physical activity improves the way you connect with your children

Fact: Overweight parents have a much higher incidence of overweight children.

It's frightening that one quarter of children aged two to 17 are overweight or obese. Obesity in fathers is associated with a four-fold increase in risk of obesity at the age of 18 years in both sons and daughters.

As a father I only want the best for my children and the biggest gift I can give them is a healthy relationship with physical activity. Health behaviours are set in our youth, so it is vital parents are positive role models. This means providing them with nourishing fruits and vegetables at meal times and teaching them to love exercise.

You'll not only get the health benefits of physical activity, but also strengthen the bond with your kids in a fun and meaningful way.

5. Physical activity dramatically improves your mood

Fact: Physical activity has been proven to be as successful as Zoloft in treating mild forms of depression**.

More than 1 million adults in Australia experience depression every year. Depression is more than just 'having the blues' - it can affect your brain function, sleep cycles, sympathetic nervous system, immune function and digestive tract.

A study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine tested exercise against Zoloft in treating depression, and found that either, or a combination of both, were equally as effective in reducing depressive symptoms. The major advantage of exercise over medication is there are no nasty side effects (the potential for injury aside if you don't do it right).

Being physically active also helps regulate the systems affected by depression by improving sleep, boosting your mood and increasing your energy levels. So lace up those shoes and head out the door to embrace the many benefits of exercise.

6. Physical activity improves your sex life

Come on. If numbers 1 to 5 haven't fired you up, surely this will.

Staying in shape can boost your performance in the bedroom by improving circulation and boosting testosterone. For men this means stronger erections, and less erectile dysfunction.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health studied 31,000 men and found that those who exercised vigorously for 20 to 30 minutes a day were 30 per cent less likely to report erectile dysfunction than their sedentary counterparts. That increased fitness not only helps your heart, but also makes you last longer in the bedroom.

There you go. Six compelling reasons why physical activity has nothing to do with the way you look.

What are the benefits you achieve from regular exercise?

** Please note that the article does not state that Zoloft is better, but it can be just as effective. See your doctor or a health professional if you have been feeling down for longer than a few weeks.

Workplace performance expert Andrew May has been helping his white-collar clients achieve both physical and mental gains for decades, and has learned a trick or 20 - plus a few of the pitfalls - along the way.

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