Exercise: forget the quick fix
It’s that time of year again: fitness resolutions, renewed gym memberships, classes joined and paid for, lofty goals of weight loss and toned abs.
But while we’re fixating on athletic ideals amid all this ‘new year, new me’ hubris, spare a thought for your mental wellbeing. It is in fact far healthier to create a more holistically healthy lifestyle that encompasses other needs, such as nutrition, sleep, rest and self-esteem.
‘Good physical and mental health cannot be achieved and sustained with a quick fix, but by a series of small changes over time that become habits and thus a lifestyle,’ says Paula Appleton, director of Evergreen Active and one of the UK’s first 100 Mental Health & Exercise Coaches.
All about sustainability
Taking a measured approach will be more sustainable and bring greater benefits – not only physically but mentally and emotionally, too. Physical exercise can lower stress levels, improve our overall mood and make us more resilient. In fact, a Harvard study found that running for just 15 minutes a day reduces the risk of depression by 26%.
‘Team sports mean we connect with others, while something like boxing requires us to be fully present and in the moment. This can be great to take our mind off things that may be troubling us,’ says Abigail Ireland, a peak performance strategist for banking and finance professionals at Understanding Performance.
‘Jogging and swimming are great activities that aren’t too mentally taxing, and so the brain can experience some downtime and immerse itself in active meditation. When going for a run, we can amplify the benefits by simultaneously listening to our favourite tunes or a motivating podcast.’
Bust the stress
When we’re feeling stressed, our sympathetic nervous system triggers the release of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.
‘If we’re sedentary at our desks, there’s nowhere for these hormones to go and so they stay in our system. We’re in “fight-or-flight” mode without being confronted by any physical danger,’ Ireland says. ‘Therefore, it makes sense that getting active will reduce levels of these hormones while also releasing endorphins that elevate our mood.’
There’s also the positive impact on our mental health from goal achievement. ‘We might feel fitter, stronger, more confident and even impressed with our own ability to take control over improving our lifestyles,’ Ireland adds. ‘Progress reinforces our desire to keep going and keep taking action.’
If we view exercise as part of a broader toolbox, we can optimise our physiology and boost cognitive performance. ‘By making smart food choices and undertaking physical activity, we are boosting our brain power and function. Better circulation leads to a greater flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, and in turn this supports cognitive function,’ Ireland says.
‘Our hippocampus, the memory centre of the brain, is more active during exercise. We focus better, think more clearly and studies even indicate that our memory is enhanced as a result. We also tend to experience better quality sleep, which consequently leads to higher energy and productivity the following day.’
Don’t make a new year’s resolution. ‘Don’t put yourself under pressure by signing up for that 12-month gym contract – just yet. Instead, take time in January to reflect on what being healthier means to you,’ Appleton says. ‘Don’t make a resolution; make a plan and take that first step. It will give you a massive sense of achievement and satisfaction before you’ve even set foot out of the door.’
Be intentional about what your body and mind needs. ‘Think about what you aspire to mentally and physically, and work backwards to develop your plan of action. Focus on eating wholefoods and moving every day, varying intensity and duration to suit your goals, instead of constantly pushing and adding more stress to the system,’ Ireland says. ‘It’s more effective to enjoy what you do than to push through begrudgingly and hate every minute.’
Get outdoors. Simply getting into nature regularly can positively impact mental health. ‘When we spend time outdoors we slow down naturally, which lowers the heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline,’ says Karen Liebenguth, owner of Green Space Coaching & Mindfulness. ‘As the body softens, the nervous system calms down and we feel more relaxed, grounded, calm and more confident about ourselves. Being in nature strengthens our immune system, improves our mood and reduces our feelings of isolation.’
Start to introduce small habits. ‘Pick something you enjoy and weave this into your routine. Don’t fall victim to an all-or-nothing approach that relies on motivation. Focus on consistency and tiny steps each day, and then look back and celebrate your progress,’ Ireland says. ‘If all you can manage is a 15-minute jog during your lunch break, do it. Over time, you’ll get faster and cover more distance in that 15 minutes; this is progress. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to take big, grand steps for it to matter.’
Visit ACCA’s wellbeing hub for resources and support