With Mental Health awareness week drawing to an end it seemed perfect timing to focus on the positive impact physical activity can have on our wellbeing. Especially as this years focus was on anxiety, a topic which will impact us all at some point in time in our life.
When you mention becoming more physically active to a lot of people they run a mile (well not literally as that is often the last thing they want to do!). They seem to think they will have to spend hours in the gym or run for miles every day to seek the benefits. Well you may be pleased to know that this is not true. In fact, physical activity doesn't have to involve the gym, running, or any form of sport for that matter. You will also be surprised how quickly you can rack up the recommended amount of physical activity each week.
I appreciate first hand it can be daunting to start trying to lead a more active lifestyle and you will be surrounded by myths, 'advice', do's and don'ts. But hopefully this will help you see it can be so simple, yet have such a big impact on both our physical and mental health.
#1 What are the benefits
Most people are aware of the physical benefits so I am not going to go into detail but have included a quick list below (by no means all of them)
•Reduce risk of chronic diseases (CHD, type II diabetes, strokes…)
•Reduce chances of getting cancer
•Help with respiratory conditions
•Independence in elderly
•Help correct posture imbalances
But what is often not appreciated are the mental benefits which include:
•Improved quality of life
•Improved self esteem
I cannot go into detail on all of the above, so have picked a few mental benefits that I believe are underappreciated.
#2 Anxiety and Depression
With anxiety being the focus of mental health awareness week this is a key topic which impacts us all at various stages in our lives, but yet it is rarely spoken about.
Most people will have heard of the 'runners high' which refers to when we are active our brain releases Endorphins, known as the feel good hormone. However this is not only true for runners, any aerobic activity can have this effect such as a hike in the countryside.
It is not just Endorphins which increase our mood. When we are physically active our brain also releases Serotonin, Dopamine and Norepinephrine, all of which play a vital role in regulating your mood. Regular physical exercise can help to boost the concentration of these chemicals in your brain, helping you to maintain a more constant and stable positive mood.
But it is not all about the science and hormones. Physical activity also helps act as a distraction technique for anxiety, if we are focusing on a form of physical activity we often forget why we were anxious in the first place.
Furthermore, physical activity often provides a platform to socialise, reducing the feeling of isolation as well as providing a sense of purpose.
#3 Reduces Stress
In today's fast paced society I think this is a key benefit that is often overlooked and it is not just while we are physically active that we will benefit here.
When we exercise our body releases cortisol, the stress hormone. You are probably thinking this is very backwards and likely to lead to more stress, however regularly partaking in physical exercise blunts the body’s response to cortisol. This means that when cortisol is released at other times in your life, there are reduced detrimental effects to your body as it will have adapted to manage cortisol better due to exercise.
Other ways physical activity can reduce stress include
an outlet for managing the physical tension caused by stress
can act as a distraction
Improves self confidence
Prolonged high stress levels are also linked to several physical conditions such as high blood pressure and coronary heart disease. Therefore if we can reduce our stress levels this will also improve our physical health - a win win if you ask me!
Physical activity has also been proven to improve deep sleep where the brain and body can rejuvenate. Which as we all know improved sleep has many benefits in daily life, and just generally makes us feel better and life seem easier.
Lack of sleep is also linked to lower levels of leptin, which is the hormone that makes us feel full and therefore when we are sleep deprived we are more likely to eat more and become overweight, bringing its own challenges.
Improved sleep brings many benefits including an improved immune system and healthier brain, boosts energy and aids repair and growth.
Being physical active can bring so many benefits to our lives it would be impossible to include them all here. However hopefully these couple have given you some motivation to try and become more active.
So the next questions is how do I become more active?
#5 What counts as being more Physically Active?
As I mentioned earlier, you do not have to live in the gym to become more physically active. Small changes can have a great benefit. In fact the government recommend you partake in 150 minutes moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Therefore if you were to go on a 30 minute walk every lunchtime you would achieve this without even realising.
More good news is physical activity is actually just any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. This means it includes activities such as dancing, gardening and DIY.
#6 Becoming more active
We can often be very quick to highlight the barriers as to why we cannot become more active - cost, time, not sure what to do, don't have the facilities.
However why don't we think about shifting this focus to how can we all become more physically active?
There are many ways you can incorporate it into your daily routine and soon enough you won't realise you are doing it and it may even bring other added benefits too.
For example, if you incorporate it into your commute you may find yourself saving money on the bus fare! A few ideas you could consider:
- Take the stairs over the lift
- Park at the back of the car park
- If you only need a few things at the shops use a basket instead of a trolley
- Challenge your friends or work colleagues to a daily step count competition
- Find a hobby you enjoy (gardening, dancing, hiking)
- Involve others so you not only become accountable but it becomes a social event
- Start with small steps
- Set yourself SMART goals (see previous post)
- Recognise and reward success
Following on from lock down me and my uni friends have now turned our annual reunion into a hiking weekend. Its now the perfect way to catch up with everyone without the distractions of phones and technology, visit a different part of the UK and get some steps in whilst appreciating the great outside. A bit different from the hours we used to spend sitting in the pub!
Or on a different level my brother has just returned from a family holiday of a lifetime in Canada all because he wanted to run the Vancouver marathon (well that was his excuse anyway). Even with a busy family and work life he managed to train and complete a hilly course in a casual 3 hours 4 minutes!
We are all different but there are so many ways to incorporate physical activity into your lifestyle without seeing it as a chore. For me the most important thing is to find something that works for you and that you enjoy!
However, if you would like some more accountability or to discuss how you can become more active including setting yourself daily habits and goals please get in touch.