For the physical element of The Wheel Of Wellness, I’ve decided to split the topic into three separate posts as there’s lots I want to cover. Today’s Monday Matters is all about movement and exercise, how it affects your mental health and easy ways in which you can incorporate physical activity into your life.
Most of us are aware of at least some of the benefits of regular exercise for the body and its physical functioning but did you know that getting moving can have a dramatic impact on your mental health too?
What are the main benefits of physical activity on your mental wellbeing?
- better self esteem – feeling good about yourself as your fitness levels improve and you meet your goals
- reduces risk of depression or symptoms of the illness
- enables you to connect with others – can help you meet new people and develop new friendships through doing team activities or seeing others engaged in the same activity such as going to the gym, walking in nature etc
- happier moods – releases feel good hormones helping you to feel better in yourself and combatting lethargy by increasing energy levels
- improved sleep – increased physical activity will make you feel tired by the end of the day and can get you ready for a restful night’s sleep
- helps you manage stress, anxiety and intrusive thoughts – a positive coping strategy which gives your brain something else to focus on
How much physical activity should I be doing?
This depends very much on your life circumstances and your current level of fitness. You should think about what feels realistic to you right now and this might change quite dramatically if you are managing a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder.
The NHS has lots of advice on how much activity is recommended each week for different groups of people and also provides information about the different forms of exercise which are helpful for maintaining good physical health. Again, the guidelines provide something to work to when you are feeling physically and mentally fit and you should always consult your doctor for tailor made advice if you have any form of injury or limiting health condition.
What type of exercise should I choose?
The best advice I can offer here is to choose activities that you think you will enjoy and give them a go. If you choose exercises which make you feel uncomfortable or you have to force yourself to do, you’re unlikely to stick with them. So, for example, if the thought of working out at your local gym fills you with dread then setting up a membership probably isn’t a good idea. However, if you choose an activity which is fun and enjoyable, you’re more likely to engage in it regularly and make it part of your routine. You’re also much more likely to experience the aforementioned benefits to your mental health.
There are lots of different things you can try – some you might know straight away are not a good fit for you whereas with others you might need to give them a go in order to make your mind up. Highly aerobic exercises might be less suitable if you’re just starting out or have reduced mobility and you and your GP are best placed to decide what you can currently manage and what you might be able to aim towards in the future.
Being more active at home
If you have a really busy schedule, doing a short home based workout might be an easy and convenient way of fitting in some exercise. Some of the benefits of working out or being more active at home include:
- Saves time – no travelling required and no waiting for machines or equipment (as often happens at my gym when it’s busy!)
- Privacy – if you think you would feel self-conscious working out in public, exercising at home with the blinds shut or curtains drawn can be much more comfortable
- Work out any time – you can decide when you want to exercise so working out at home is super convenient – you might prefer first thing before you start work or half an hour prior to cooking your dinner.
- Flexibility – when you go to a gym class, the pressure is on to keep up with others or to push yourself to work harder. Also, there are individuals who have been doing the class for months, and some who are having a go for the first time so the instructor is trying to cater for the needs of everyone. At home, you set the pace and if you feel like a particular exercise is too difficult or needs modification then you can skip bits or find out how you can simplify things.
- Low cost – no gym fees or expensive equipment needed. You can workout on your living room carpet or on a cheap mat. If you want to use weights, a couple of small water bottles or cans of beans are ideal when you first start out
Ideas for home workouts
- Set an alarm to remind you to move each hour (or set up your fitness watch to vibrate). Spend 10 minutes doing exercises which are good for your current fitness levels e.g. jumping jacks, burpees, bicycle crunches, high knees etc.
- Dancing – Put on some music with a fast beat and dance around your kitchen / living room / bedroom etc.
- Chair based exercises – if you have mobility problems or a physical health condition which makes it difficult to be out of a chair, there are exercise routines you can try whilst sitting down. Check out this page on the NHS website or look for chair based workouts on YouTube.
- Find some free beginners YouTube videos which have exercise regimes on – try looking for cardio workouts, yoga, balance training, Pilates, legs, bums and tums, core based etc.
- Play an active computer game e.g. Zumba fitness, Wii Sports etc
- Housework – doing household chores is a great way to get moving. Dusting, vacuuming, cleaning the windows, mopping floors or washing and polishing your car can all increase your pulse rate and burn calories. Also, you can make the activities as gentle or strenuous as you like and you can make each task as short or as long as you want.
- Gardening – Gardening is a great physical activity and is wonderful for your emotional wellbeing too. Again, you could engage in more strenuous activities such as digging, hoeing, mowing the lawn and pruning. Or more gentle activities such as pulling up a few small weeds or setting a few seeds in some pots.
A few tips for getting active at home
- do a mini risk assessment in the room you intend to use for working out – is there enough room to exercise safely? do you have a ceiling pendant light which might get in your way if you stretch your arms up? might you need to move some furniture or move your mat so you’re not in danger of hitting things? is anyone likely to enter the room and knock into you or open the door onto you? etc
- put on your workout gear like you would if you were going to a gym – this could be shorts and a t-shirt and might include a sports bra
- try to do different types of workout e.g. cardio, strength, stretching, core etc so you’re targeting all parts of your body each week.
- schedule ‘active time’ in your weekly plan like you would if you were going to the gym – let others know of your intentions so they can cheer you on / ask you how things went / be out of your way at your chosen time etc.
- try setting some SMART goals to work towards
- remember, it’s okay to skip a workout session if you’re really busy or something unexpected comes up but try not to make a habit of it or you won’t feel all of those wonderful benefits I mentioned earlier!
Out and about activities
There are lots of activities which you can do out and about and some gyms have instructor led and virtual classes to try too. Here’s some ideas:
- Nature walk – this could be in your local park, through woodland, on the beach, around a lakeside path, next to the river etc. You could also look online for nearby nature reserves to visit either with friends, family or alone for some quiet time.
- Walking or running – this could be to a friend’s house, to work, to the local shops or even around the block. All you need is a comfortable pair or shoes or trainers and you’re good to go. If you want your walk or run to be a sociable activity you could join a group in your local community (try searching online for walking or running groups) or arrange to meet a friend in the park or somewhere convenient for you both.
- Dance classes – there are lots of different types of dance which you could try – some are more active / fast paced than others. Suggestions include Zumba (high intensity), salsa, ballroom, clubbercise or line dancing.
- Sports and games with family or friends – these can be indoor or outdoor and include ball games such as tennis, football, rounders and netball, informal games such as frisbee, throw and catch and tag and supervised or instructor led watersports such as canoeing or surfing.
- Cycling – this could be a family bike ride or as a way of making a journey e.g. to the shops, visiting friends or family or to work. You can start off with a really short distance and then increase the length and opportunities for uphill climbs as your fitness levels improve.
- Gym classes – some gyms have fitness classes which you can try too. These can be instructor led or virtual (on a screen). Examples include yoga, kettlebells, Pilates, spinning, zumba, body pump, circuits, step and forever fit aimed at the over 50s.
- Swimming – swimming can be a great workout for the whole body. It gets the heart rate up but takes most of the impact stress off your joints. If you’re a beginner, it’s best to do your swimming in a heated pool with lifeguards at hand to keep you safe.
- Outdoor gyms – lots of parks have these now and the equipment is totally free to use. Your local council / local area website should tell you where these are located so you can give them a go.
- Mindful exercise – yoga, pilates and tai chi are great for combining moving the body with mindfulness. I also like do some mindful movement when I’m on the reclining bike at the gym – I close my eyes and think about the effects it’s having on my body (I wouldn’t recommend doing this on other pieces of equipment like the treadmill though!!!)
- The gym – many people are put off from joining the gym as they think it will be full of muscly men and women who are obsessed with their appearance. From my experience, yes there are some people of the aforementioned type, but there are also many other individuals too who are there for a common reason such as toning, increasing their fitness levels or trying to be more active. In my gym there are people of all shapes and sizes and all ages. The ones I attend are owned by the local council and are managed by Everyone Active and I think these gyms are the best for inclusivity. Most of them will offer a free trial too so you can see if it is something you enjoy before paying for a membership.
What if I’m feeling unwell or physical activity doesn’t work for me?
There may be times when physical activity is super helpful and you can really feel the benefits. However, there may also be other times when exercise just isn’t working for you. Maybe you’re struggling with high levels of anxiety or are having difficulties with depression and you don’t have the motivation to stay active. Or, you’re feeling frustrated because everyone is trying to tell you the benefits of getting some exercise and even though they mean well, it’s actually causing you to feel guilty or to beat yourself up for not adding some physical activity to your day.
For some people, exercise can make their mental health worse, triggering anxiety or further contributing to their mental health problem(s). For example, someone I spoke with in the Bipolar forum group that I’m a member of said that her Community Mental Health Nurse completed an exercise referral for her and at first was enjoying being more active, but then she became obsessed with going and her support worker began to see signs of overtraining and a fixation on getting fit. This was causing rapid weight loss and together, they decided that the current exercise programme was having a negative effect and should be stopped or at least greatly modified. If you or your family feel that your chosen physical activities are having a negative impact, you many need to discuss any concerns with a health professional such as a mental health nurse, support worker, doctor or therapist.
Whatever it is that’s currently stopping you from being active, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself. You might just need to focus on other self care activities for a while such as relaxing in the bath, spending time in nature or curling up with a good book. When you’re feeling a little better or have got yourself on top of things, you can gradually build physical activity into your routine again. This might mean re-evaluating your exercise plans and making a few changes or trying a different type of activity.
Although an increase in physical activity can have lots of benefits for our health, it’s important to start slowly. Doing too much too quickly is likely to make you feel overly tired or burnt out and this can mean you’re unable to keep up with the expectations you’ve placed on yourself. This can result in unhelpful or negative feelings, put you off somewhat or cause you to quit altogether.
Try to plan a realistic and achievable routine which fits with you and your lifestyle. Building up your physical activity and the intensity a little each week can make a real difference. Also, remember that rest days are important too as they give your body time to recover.
And another thing… it’s okay to slow down or take a break if your energy levels aren’t as good as they usually are or if you’re having a tough time mentally or emotionally. You can resume your routine when you start to feel better, remembering to build up again slowly if you’ve not exercised for quite a while.
I hope you’ve found today’s blog post really helpful and it’s encouraged you to think about how increasing your physical activity may help you personally. Let me know what your favourite ways to exercise are or if there’s something you’ve always wanted to try and might give a go. It could even be an activity you used to have fun doing as a kid and secretly would love to have a go at again. For example I used to love trampolining sessions at the beach when on holiday with my family. I also used to enjoy badminton in the back garden with my dad but haven’t played for over 20 years!