Posted in depression management, Health and Nutrition, mental health, self care, wellbeing

Monday Matters: Why Exercise is Good for your Mental Health

We all know exercise is important for maintaining physical health but working out is also extremely beneficial for your mental health. As someone who regularly struggles with depression, I have a really good understanding of how important exercise is to help me manage my symptoms. In today’s Monday Matters, I thought I would discuss some of the reasons why regular exercise is so great for your mental wellbeing.

Boosts your mood

An energetic workout such as a brisk walk, a dance class or cardio at the gym releases endorphins AKA the feel good hormones into the body. These chemicals help to boost your happiness levels and can be great for alleviating anxiety and depression and any physical aches and pains you might have. Exercise also gives us something positive to focus on and can be a useful distraction from negative and anxious thoughts during periods of difficulty.

Increases energy levels

You might think that exercise will wear you out and make you feel tired, but the reverse is actually true. According to my research, moderate exercise helps to increase the level of mitochondria cells, which are directly responsible for producing energy. Also, a good workout boosts the circulation of oxygen in your body which makes you feel energised. Although you may feel worn out at the end of your exercise session, a few hours later, your energy levels should have picked back up, leaving you refreshed and invigorated for the rest of the day.

Fatigue is a common symptom of depression so by getting some exercise each day, even if it’s just a short walk or ten minutes of housework, you can combat the constant feeling of tiredness.

Promotes better quality sleep

As well as increasing your energy levels, exercise also helps to improve the quality of your sleep. You should find that you fall asleep more quickly and get more minutes of deep sleep, leaving you feeling refresh in the morning. It should be noted, however that you should avoid exercising for at least a couple of hours before bed as the production of those endorphins I mentioned earlier will leave you feeling buzzing, unable to switch off and struggling to sleep.

Improves self esteem

Self esteem is all about our perception of ourselves and how much value we place on our personal characteristics and qualities. Low self esteem can have a negative impact on our emotional wellbeing causing feelings of worthlessness and lack of self love. Exercise has been shown to have a really positive impact on our self esteem. As well as helping to put us in a more positive frame of mind which can make us feel better about ourselves, regular exercise can also boost our self esteem by:

  • improving our body image
  • helping us to feel more physically competent as we become stronger and more flexible
  • giving us a huge sense of achievement as we create new habits and stick to them
  • encouraging you to build friendships with others who are on a similar fitness journey or enjoy the same kinds of exercise
  • helping us to feel more healthy as we observe the effects on our body and mind

Can combat social withdrawal and isolation

Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia can make us feel very lonely and cause us to withdraw from social situations such as talking and meeting with friends, going shopping, family get togethers etc. Even if you are struggling a little at the moment and don’t particularly feel like socialising, pushing yourself to take a walk in your local park where others are exercising or going to the gym when it is relatively quiet can help you feel a part of the community. Joining a class with other likeminded individuals can help combat feelings of isolation. I’ve attended a few yoga classes recently and although I felt really nervous about going, I met some really lovely people and felt super proud of myself for making conversation both with class attendees and the instructors.

Improves cognitive function

Cardio workouts i.e. those which raise our heart rate and get us sweating help to improve the function of the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain which processes and retrieves different kinds of memories. Moderate-intensity exercise can also boost other aspects of cognitive processing including thinking, problem solving, attention, language and learning. This can help us feel better about ourselves and increase our self confidence. Studies have also shown that regular exercise can also help to combat the cognitive decline associated with ageing.

Stress busting

Regular aerobic exercise has been found to be really effective at reducing stress levels. The production of endorphins in the brain can decrease tension, elevate your mood and generally make you feel good. Also, exercise that involves deep breathing, such as yoga and Pilates, can help you to relax by producing calming energy.

Feeling the benefits of being fully present

Certain types of exercise encourage you to be mindful by paying attention to the quality of your movements or holding poses. Yoga and Pilates may not get your pulse racing and endorphins flowing, but, as well as being great for improving strength, muscle tone and flexibility, the level of concentration required takes the focus away from your low mood, stresses or worries about your current circumstances and negative self talk associated with anxiety or depression. As one of my yoga teachers once said, you’re enjoying the benefits of a mini mind break or a mental holiday.

Ways to get active every day

There are so many great ways to increase the amount of physical activity you do each week. In order to stay motivated, it’s best if you choose things you enjoy and which easily fit into your daily life. Here’s some suggestions:

  • Be active around the house and in the garden by doing moderate exercise such as washing the car, cleaning the windows, doing some digging, mowing the lawn or vacuuming every room.
  • Arrange a fun weekly class to attend with a family member or friend. Popular choices include clubbercise, spinning (indoor cycling, often done to loud dance music), bums and tums and body pump.
  • Enjoy a weekend woodland walk, immersing yourself in the environment and forgetting about life’s stresses and strains.
  • Dust off your bike and head to a country park for a spot of cycling. Safer than riding on the roads or pavements and the paths often include some inclines to really work your legs!
  • If you’ve just got 10 or 20 minutes, try an online workout. There are plenty of short fitness videos on YouTube and you can choose which part of your body you want to work on such as legs, glutes, arms or tummy.
  • Try Nordic walking which involves using a pair of walking poles. Not only do your legs get a good workout, you will also be using your arms and engaging your core.
  • Join your local gym and ask a personal trainer to help you create a workout to suit your current fitness levels and target specific parts of your body you’d like to tone.
  • Put some fast tempo music on whilst you do a spot of dusting and dance your way around the furniture and various rooms.
  • Get off the train or bus a stop early and walk the rest of the way.
  • Search for local walks and hikes online and and pick one out each weekend to go on with your partner or a friend.
  • If you have kids or grandkids, encourage them to be active and spend time as a family doing something sporty such as having a kick about, taking some netball or basketball shots, riding a bike, playing frisbee or having a game of tennis in a nearby park. You could even pack a nutritious picnic for when you’re done!
  • Walk or cycle instead of taking the car.
  • Go for a swim – it’s a great full body workout, low impact and easy on your joints. Or, if you like being in the pool, but, like me, you’re not so good at swimming, try an aqua aerobics class.

N.B. Please bear in mind that the above are examples of ways in which you might get yourself moving and begin to enjoy the many benefits of exercise. I am in no way an expert on exercise and it’s best to consult with your doctor prior to beginning any exercise programme or upping your physical activity levels, especially if you have not exercised for some time or if you have a particular medical condition or concerns.

Final words…

Regular exercise can be quite costly if you join a gym and attend classes regularly. However, there are many inexpensive or free exercise options if you are on a tight budget. I’m currently signed up to a programme which gives me free access to my local gym and wellness centre for 12 weeks and I’m making the most of it by regularly working out at the gym and also trying out some of the classes which are available.

It might be a good idea to do some research online to see if there are any special deals or programmes on offer in your local community, Or, you could find out if there’s a recovery college nearby which might have some physical activity based courses to become involved in to help you manage mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety. Walking is also a free or inexpensive way of getting moving and if you are hoping to socialise with others, many towns and cities have local walking groups available to people of all levels of fitness.

Posted in lifestyle, Planning and journaling, Setting goals and intentions, wellbeing, wellness

How to create a beginner’s workout routine and why rest days are an important part of your fitness practice

Photo credit: Zibik on Unsplash

If you read my post on my bullet journal set up for next month, you will have seen that I intend to start track my steps and workouts in a handy spread I created for the purpose. As this will start from tomorrow (can you believe it’s almost May already!), I thought I would do some research into creating a good workout routine that targets all of the body and includes all of the necessary elements to increase strength and fitness. And if I’m going to do all of this hard work reading up on creating a rounded routine I figured I should share it with you all in case you are wanting to improve your fitness levels too. Bear in mind this will be very much beginner level and also that I’m over 40 and therefore I have to take into account a little bit of bodily wear and tear! So, without further ado, I’ll jump right into it.

My first port of call was the NHS website as I figured that this was the most reliable source of information I could find. They present guidelines for all adults aged 19 to 64 and state the following

Adults should do some type of physical activity every day. Any type of activity is good for you. The more you do the better.

NHS Guidelines for 19 – 64 year olds

The NHS then goes on to state that the exercise should consist of strengthening exercises which work all of the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest shoulders and arms) at least twice a week plus at least 150 minutes of moderate intense activity or vigorous intensity activity for 75 minutes. Some examples of each intensity can be found below:

Moderate activity

a brisk walk

heavy cleaning (vacuuming, mopping etc)

mowing the lawn

cycling (light effort)

doubles tennis

water aerobics

dancing

swimming

gentle aerobics

Vigorous activity

hiking

jogging

tennis singles

fast bike riding

football game

basketball

running

energetic dancing e.g. Zumba, Clubbercise

This means that, for example, you could aim for 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 days a week or an intense exercise at least once a week plus shorter moderate activities. For my moderate intensity activity, I try to do a brisk(ish) walk almost every day and a beginners aerobics class for 30 minutes at least 3 times a week which starts of gentle and then gets a little more vigorous further in.

The website also says that we should reduce the amount of time spent sitting or lying down and break up long periods of not moving with some activity. This is where a Fitbit fitness tracker is useful because you can set it up to vibrate if you haven’t done 250 steps in the hour to remind you to move (it even tells you how many more steps you need sometimes!). In fact, at 10.50am as I sit here typing, my Alta HR has just vibrated so I paused and went for a short walk around the garden and popped up the stairs to deliver this morning’s post to my husband in my craft room. I also use the opportunity to do a few basic stretches, particularly of my neck.

If, like me, you are a beginner or are just getting back into a fitness routine, you should remember to take it gently at first, so no doing long, vigorous workouts and collapsing in a heap at the end! I found that when I started doing the aerobics sessions it was tempting to push myself too far in a bid to see faster results but this is certainly not to be recommended. Far better to push yourself a tiny bit harder each day and build up to more intense routines.

You can also find a list of very intense activities which are known as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). These are done in short bursts where you put in maximum effort followed by periods of rest. Just thinking about that has made me feel exhausted (ha ha!) and reminds me of when I once went to a spinning class and could barely drag my jelly legs off the stationary bike by the end!

For muscle strengthening, exercises such as yoga, pilates or Tai Chi are recommended but you could also try some heavy gardening such as digging when the weather allows. Lifting weights or using resistance bands are also good for developing muscle. Personally, as you will know if you follow my blog, I’m really getting into yoga and try to do at least 20 minutes per day. It may look easy with it being so slow but some of the poses can be really intense. There are so many benefits for body and mind with yoga and if you want to learn more, check out this post. I’ve even found some yoga routines online which target specific parts of the body so you can work on strengthening your back, upper body and even your core. This is one of my favourite YouTube channels right now.

Muscle strengthening

You can combine your moderate aerobic activity with your muscle strengthening routines or do them at different times or on different days depending on what suits you. I do my yoga and a walk in the morning and then do my aerobics in the afternoon but I’m finding that the bright afternoon sun is making my living room really hot so I may change this as the weather improves. After lockdown is over, I’m also hoping to do my hour long yoga session on a Friday at the wellbeing centre and also go to the gym for resistance work and some time on the treadmill, the bikes or stepper.

Remember to exercise safely

When you first start, it’s really important to ensure you are performing exercises correctly. That’s why I would recommend that you go to a class or seek the help and support of a fitness professional. I know, at the moment, due to lockdown and social distancing, doing this in person is not currently possible but there is advice to be found online on various websites and a whole array of YouTube videos from instructors. If your technique is poor, you won’t get the expected benefits of an exercise and it may even lead to pain or injury so please do make sure you workout safely.

Schedule in rest days

When you begin a new exercise regime and develop the motivation to stick to it, you can quickly become addicted to the rush of feel good endorphins that are released during moderate activity workouts. Also, when you start to see results in terms of better muscle tone and strength or weight loss, you may think that working out intensely every day is going to help speed up your progress. However, the opposite is in fact true. Taking regular breaks in the form of rest days is just as important as exercise as it allows your body to recover and repair. In fact, skipping rest days often leads to burnout or injury.

A rest day doesn’t mean you can’t do any exercise at all. It just means that you take it easy and avoid doing anything intense. A little light stretching or a gentle walk are absolutely fine. So, for example, I shall still be doing my yoga and getting outside for a nature walk each day but I won’t be doing my aerobics on at least two of the seven days. By building in rest time I’ll be feeling refreshed and ready to continue with the rest of my routine.

I hope you have found today’s post helpful. I’ve tried to put the key ideas in bold so that you could skim read if necessary. Let me know if this lockdown period has provided the encouragement for you to get fit or if you really need to up your activity levels but haven’t found the motivation to get started yet! (I know some people are struggling with fatigue right now due to the fact the situation is quite overwhelming and stressful). If you have any further ideas or advice for me in my journey to fitness, please feel free to share your suggestions.