How does exercise build confidence and boost self-esteem?

“Obstacle course racing restored my confidence and helped me to regain control of my life.”

blog post 3I think instinctively we know that exercise makes us feel good, that having a strong body equals a strong mind. We know that exercising and being active boosts our moods but why is this the case?

I mentioned in my first blog post a feeling of empowerment that came from exercising, in particular from taking part in obstacle course races (OCRs) but I often wonder why it makes me feel that way?

There have been many studies done in this area but there’s not much scientific proof out there confirming what we instinctively know.

Recently research has emerged though proving the link between physical activity and improved mental health.

In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in October last year (2017) the results show that even small amounts of exercise can protect against depression, with mental health benefits seen regardless of age or gender.

In the largest and most extensive study of its kind, the analysis involved 33,908 Norwegian adults who had their levels of exercise and symptoms of depression and anxiety monitored over 11 years.

The research team found that 12 percent of cases of depression could have been prevented if participants undertook just one hour of physical activity each week.

We also know for sure that regular physical activity lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol and reduces blood sugar. Exercise reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, some cancers, osteoporosis and fractures, and obesity.

Photo by Epic Action Imagery (www.epicactionimagery.com)

But the question is why does exercise counter mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and boost self-confidence? There seem to be two explanations on the table – the chemical reactions that take place in the brain and the emotional reactions.

The mental benefits of aerobic exercise occur when chemical reactions reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise not only relieves stress but it also stimulates the production of endorphins – chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the ‘high’ we feel after exercise and for the feelings of euphoria and optimism that we often get after a hard workout.

The emotional benefits of exercise include improved self-image as your strength and stamina increase or as you lose weight if that’s your goal. They also include feelings of pride, control and in turn self-confidence. A sense of achievement and an increase in energy can help you succeed in other tasks and achieve more in all areas of life.

Exercise also offers a chance for some ‘me-time’, an opportunity to get away from it all and to either enjoy some solitude and introspection, or to spend time with friends, or make new friends. Exercise can be both exhilarating and relaxing.  It also often helps better sleep, which in turn helps with depression and to prevent illness.

For me, I think exercising gives me the feeling that I am able, I am capable, I can endure. It is also partly to do with my identity, at least my own sense of identity. The fact that I still have my own identity separate from that of being a mother.

Don’t get me wrong, the best thing I have ever done in my life is have my children and I love being a mum but the strength I gain from exercise and being fit makes me feel like more than just a mum. Rather than seeing my identities as separate I see them merging and I become a super-mum. I’m sure this is not how other people see me but that’s how I feel and that’s what is important.

After working out I feel strong and therefore I become strong … strong enough to take on all the challenges that life, work and motherhood throw at me on a daily basis. I feel more able to deal with the big stuff and the small – the dramas, the crises, the tears, the tantrums, the growing up and the breaking down.

I am able to cope with the lack of sleep, the loss of my own mum, the constant juggle of work, study and life in general with energy and positivity. I am able to cope because I feel strong of mind and strong of body. That’s what exercise and OCRs in particular give to me. A gift unequalled by anything else.

Exercise in general makes me feel good and boosts my mood every single time but OCR makes me feel empowered. I think it is because my self-esteem is boosted every time I conquer an obstacle. Whether it is beating a physical challenge, such as completing a set of monkey bars or climbing over a wall, or conquering a mental challenge such as climbing over a high cargo net – I’m afraid of heights – or crawling through a small, dark, long, often water-filled tunnel – I am terrified of small spaces and have to really battle the challenge of claustrophobia.

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Either way, completing an obstacle brings with it a massive sense of achievement and a huge boost in confidence and self-esteem. Perhaps that strength gained from beating the obstacles on a course is then carried over to battle everyday obstacles, such as low self-esteem and the loss of confidence in my abilities – something that so often seems to go hand-in-hand with the onset of motherhood.

Every time I focus on a new obstacle to get to grips with it gives me a challenge to concentrate on. It requires drive and determination which are useful qualities in life in general. For example, I recently obsessed over doing a ‘flying monkey’ and it took me a few weeks of trying again and again and again, battling away with the psychological barrier in my head that was telling me I couldn’t do it.

Luckily, I had the support of some amazing people around me who told me I could do it, they believed I was physically capable and I just had to believe in myself. As soon as I believed, I did it.

If you can overcome your fears and the perception that you can’t do something – whatever that might be – you will be rewarded with a sense of achievement and control. That leads to renewed self-confidence and the knowledge that you have that power is what makes you strong in all areas of life.

Exercising is a cycle of self-improvement. The better you feel, the more active you will become, and the more active you become the better you will feel. Finding a sport or an activity that you love and grow to feel passionate about also helps a great deal. Find your sport and you will find your tribe.

OCRs have given me some amazing and supportive new friends. I call them my fitness family because they offer support, belief, encouragement and understanding. With them and in OCR in general there’s no judgment about who you are, what size, shape or gender you are and there’s no mould that you have to fit. There’s a great sense of community and team spirit plays an important part in every race.

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Since discovering my passion for this sport my change hasn’t been just physical. I’m not just fitter, stronger and more capable than when I started out on my fitness journey three years ago but my mind is stronger and healthier than it’s ever been too. It’s taken me until my forties to discover this inner strength but now I have I won’t let it go.

Exercise isn’t an option anymore, it’s a necessity. The reason I do OCRs is because I never thought I could. I watched my husband doing them and thought it was his ‘thing’, he was stronger than me, fitter than me, and so on.

Even after my first huge step of completing a Spartan Sprint (5km) some time after the birth of my second child I still thought I’d never run a Beast (20km), even a Super (12km), or get my Trifecta (complete all three Spartan races in one year), but OCRs and training for them have strengthened my mentality and my belief in myself. With each step I took I realised that I can achieve my goals, no matter how big they seem.

Thanks to OCR I have pushed, persevered and endured. It can be exhausting trying to train through the sleep deprivation caused by having young children but races are so exhilarating and one of the most rewarding feelings in the world is when you complete an obstacle or cross that finish line. You then just have to hold on to that feeling.

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