The Mind-Body Benefits of Physical Fitness

The Mind-Body Benefits of Physical Fitness

Exercise can help combat stress and potential illness.

Stress from traffic, cell phones and balancing work/life is so pervasive today that it has become a driving force behind rising healthcare costs.

In a six-year study of more than 46,000 workers, depression and unmanaged stress emerged as the costliest risk factors in terms of medical expenditures. And, according to the American Institute of Stress, 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related.

When someone is under stress, adrenaline pours into the blood stream as part of our “fight or flight” response and muscles throughout the body tense in anticipation of a challenge. Immediate effects can range from a short temper to difficulty sleeping; long-term effects can be even more dangerous.

While impossible to eliminate stress from modern life, one can control the effect it has on the mind and body. People with increased levels of anxiety and nervous tension need to develop effective ways of coping with stress.

“Regular physical activity can help counter the potentially damaging effects of stress on the body and may help prevent stress-related illnesses,” says John McCarthy, executive director of the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).

“These activities provide a natural way to release tension in the body and will often lead to an automatic state of relaxation that naturally follows a good workout.”

The link between mind and body was accepted in ancient India, the birthplace of yoga, thousands of years ago. It has taken a while for Western fitness experts to embrace the idea, however, the concept of holistic health and fitness is rapidly gaining popularity and acceptance. In a survey of health clubs belonging to IHRSA, twenty-three percent offer classes specifically geared to wellness and stress reduction.

In health clubs across the country, the trend is moving away from classes focusing simply on muscle and cardiovascular training to ones that include overall wellness and whole-body maintenance. Over the past few years, more and more people have discovered the benefits of workouts that stimulate the emotions as well as the muscles.

Classes such as yoga, Pilates and martial arts fill up as quickly as health clubs put them on the schedule. According to IHRSA, participation in yoga classes at U.S. health clubs increased by 200 percent between 1998 and 2000.

This mind-body approach appeals to individuals at all different fitness levels. Consumer research shows that an impressive number of American health club members cite holistic motivations for working out. Better-than-half (54%) said that when they exercised regularly, they feel like they have their overall act together, while 38 percent said that when they do not exercise regularly, they just don’t feel right.

Top 5 Non-Physique Related Reasons for Exercise

(Base: Americans who participate in physical activities at least occasionally; % say primary reason for exercise)

1. For fun/enjoyment (49%)

2. To prevent health problems (36%)

3. To reduce stress/tension (31%)

4. To relax (30%)

5. To help with current medical problems (27%)

“As more and more health clubs offer programs that benefit the mind as well as the body, it has become much easier to find a place to practice tai chi, yoga, Pilates and more,” notes McCarthy. “I think people who have not visited a health or fitness club lately will be surprised by the variety of classes available at their local gym.”

In many cases, clubs now offer classes to non-members for a small fee.

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