Photography by Dave Nagel

Long after the Greeks perfected the art of physical conditioning and competition, patriots in early 19th century Prussia formed organized groups that exercised together as a method of recovering and strengthening their war-torn sense of national pride. What these post-Napoleonic War men and women recognized was that regular exercise not only improves physical health, it also contributes to feelings of confidence and an enhanced sense of well-being.

Chances are, you know the feeling yourself—that conquer-all confidence that follows a good workout. No longer merely a prescription for lowering disease risk, improving heart health and reversing aging conditions such as osteoporosis, exercise is being lauded throughout the medical community as an important tool for fighting depression. What is this mysterious connection between mind and muscle?

Self-steam produces self-esteem

Most people undertake a fitness program with the goal of losing weight and improving muscle tone. With these improvements, however, inevitably comes a boost in self-confidence and an improved sense of self—including body image and control over other aspects of life such as work and relationships.

"Anyone will benefit from accomplishing a goal," says William F. Gayton, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Annual Sports Psychology Institute at the University of Southern Maine. With exercise, Gayton says, the benefits are twofold. First, the completion of an objective—whether it's sticking with a weight-lifting program or running around the block—will result in boosted self-esteem. "At the same time," he says, "our society values weight loss and muscle tone, and people who stick with a fitness regime reap social benefits as well."

Elite athlete Sheila Taormina, 1996 Olympic gold medalist and member of the 2000 Olympic Inaugural Women's Triathlon team, agrees that the rewards of dedicated training are not limited to being in great shape. "Sports have taught me how to set goals. I've definitely learned how you have to set objectives and make a plan in order to get to the level you want to reach," Taormina says. "It's very easy for me to draw athletic preparation into other areas of my life. It's all intertwined."

Taormina, who tours as a motivational speaker, also works with youth groups at the Clarenceville Swim Club in her hometown of Livonia, Mich. "You can see in the middle of a tough set how people want to bail out. They'll come up with amazing reasons to try to convince both themselves and the coach they should stop. I always tell them that trying to think up an excuse to stop takes considerably more energy than just getting out there and working hard."

You don't have to be an Olympic-level athlete to realize substantial benefits from working out. Bruce Green, a sixth-degree black belt in karate, has been training in martial arts since 1970. A graduate of the Japan Ministry of Education's JKA (Japan Karate Association) Instructor Training Program, Green says the effects of exercise clearly reach beyond mere physical health. "Martial arts originated with the Samurai warrior class, which actively embraced the concept of character development. More than just helping with self-esteem, self-confidence and fitness," he says, "martial arts training enhances concentration and psychological flexibility and contributes directly to character development." And the concept of character, of course, is rooted deep within the mind—not the muscles.

Feelin' groovy

The human brain produces chemicals known as endorphins and enkephalins, powerful natural opiates that both relieve pain and induce a sense of mild euphoria. Endorphin release is triggered by vigorous or sustained exercise, resulting in feelings of overall well-being, which include the familiar "runner's high."

It is this same endorphin release that positively affects mild to moderate depression. Such claims, though, says Gayton, may have been taken a little too far. "No one with major clinical depression should try to manage that condition solely with exercise," he cautions. "Serious depression should always be treated professionally, and treatment may include a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy."

The very best exercise

Experts agree: The best exercise is one that you enjoy enough to stick with. "Pick an activity that you're suited for and that appeals to you," advises Robert Ruhling, Ph.D., professor in the department of health, fitness and recreation at George Mason University. If you hate to run, chances are you just won't do it. Try cycling instead, or sign up for yoga or a salsa aerobics class. Likewise, if your tennis game leaves you feeling frustrated and clumsy no matter how many lessons you pay for, hang up your racket and switch to an activity that gives you pleasure.

Robert Schleser, Ph.D., of the Institute of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, cautions that in order to profit psychologically and physically from exercise, it's essential to have realistic goals. "You've got to both love the activity," says Schleser, "and understand the physical limitations involved. If your expectations are too high, a feeling of being dispirited kicks in. The activity, whatever it is, must be appropriate to an individual's ability."

Taking up a skill sport such as archery, he adds, is unlikely to cause an initial boost in either self-esteem or fitness level. However, a sedentary person who begins with small goals such as walking once around a track is likely to feel an immediate and positive response. The same person, attempting to run two miles the first time out, will fail and have a negative response to the exercise experience. "It all goes back to expectations," says Schleser.

The journey's the goal

Ruhling points to the FIT formula—frequency, intensity and time—as a good guideline for achieving your fitness goals. Established by the American College of Sports Medicine, FIT defines frequency as three to five times a week; intensity as working within the appropriate range of your individual heart rate; and time as 20-60 minutes per workout.

Provided an activity is undertaken regularly, adds Gayton, the physical and psychological gains of aerobic vs. weight-bearing exercise appear equal. The key is in consistency. "Most folks walk around in a state of unconscious tension," says Schleser. "The very act of working out, of tensing the muscles and then relaxing them, has a countereffect on overall tension."

Before Green's daily martial arts practice, he empties his mind in order to be receptive to the learning process. "I can put all of the baggage of life out of my mind," he says. "If I go into a training session worrying about something, I wonder afterwards what was so important. For me, rigorous training puts everything into perspective."

"We all are created with certain gifts," says Taormina. "Everyone has something that just clicks. That's the exciting thing about being a human being—all the differences we have. While I could never sing a beautiful song or be an artist, I believe God created me to be a physically active person. Every season, I evaluate if this is still the plan God has for me. That's what inspires me every day.

"I feel that involvement in sports is a good thing," she continues. "It does so much for your mind, your spirit and your work ethic. I've been lucky—I've been surrounded by people who never considered my performance the most important thing."

In the end, continuing to push your mind and your body to new limits might be the whole point, says Gayton. Regardless of your age, your aspirations or your fitness level, it's important to set goals. "Too many people wake up in the morning without any challenges to face," he says. "Exercise is a great way to challenge yourself." And if you keep it in perspective, it's a great way to shape up, both mentally and physically.

Debra Bokur is a travel, health and fitness writer based in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. She is a contributing author to Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry (The Bench Press, 2001).