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Moreover, better body perception develops when women work out for broader reasons of fitness and overall health. If women can view exercise less as an opportunity to look good and more as an opportunity to feel good, this in turn should improve their body satisfaction and self-esteem, concluded researcher Peter Strelan in a 2003 Australian study on women's exercise motivations.

Mental Health

Women who end up turning an exercise program in to a long-term lifestyle usually do so out of what Segar calls autonomous goals: motives originating from within yourself, not from others expectations of how you should look, how fit you should be, or how well you should perform.

Grier McCurdy Mathews, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mom from Marin County, California, says she exercises for the sake of her mental health. I have three little kids. On any given day, I have a tenuous grip on sanity--running regularly helps me keep it.

For many women like Mathews, maintaining mental fitness is as powerful a motivator for staying active as being physically fit. Women are twice as likely to experience depression as men are, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and several studies report that physically active people feel less anxiety and depression than sedentary individuals.

Research points to a possible physiological explanation for this, mainly that exercise may help your body deal with stress more effectively by increasing brain chemicals that help control stress, anxiety and depression, reports the American Psychological Association.

Whatever the reason, the exercise-happiness connection creates lifelong devotees. And with busy lives packed with work and family responsibilities, women say the mood-boosting, stress-reducing effect has much to do with the break exercise gives them from the daily grind. Workouts are time away to do something just for themselves. Los Angeles-based pro triathlete Wendy Ingraham, 43, calls her regular morning run a 45-minute vacation.

Lasting Friendships

Time alone is important. But spending time with others while exercising is probably a stronger motivator for women. Those who regularly work out with friends or join classes or training groups are much more likely to make exercise a lifelong commitment. By creating social networks, women add an extra level of motivation on top of any other that they have, Segar explains. New Orleans nurse Jenn Clement, 32, calls working out "the base of my social life. Some of the most wonderful people I've ever known and my closest friends, including my husband, I've met through training."

Whenever Mathews runs with her girlfriends, she says she benefits from both mental healing and social interaction. "It's time to connect. We share thoughts, fears, ideas, joys, sorrows. It's kind of like mobile therapy."

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