The UK is in the midst of a cold snap called "The Beast from the East". There's a lot of snow and I suspected my neighbours might be laughing at the futility of me clearing the drive with a snow shovel when an hour later it needed the same treatment again. I was happy though and that was because I was active.
For many of us the word “exercise” brings memories of sports teachers, miserably muddy cross country runs and shivering at the edge of a school field. Organised sports sessions at school seem guaranteed to deter all but the naturally sporty types from exercise for life. Add adult time pressures and the wear and tear of age and it’s unsurprising that many of us don’t complete the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.
However, exercise is recommended for people with anxiety and depression. So much so that people in the UK with mild to moderate depression can be prescribed exercise sessions by their GP. Why is that? What are the benefits of exercise?
- It produces endorphins which are the body’s natural painkillers. They help us to feel good, more energetic and to sleep better.
- It relaxes the muscles and relieves bodily tension. This helps with anxiety as relaxing the body gives the brain the message that all is well.
- People with anxiety can fear certain changes in their body such as rapid breathing or a fast heart rate. Aerobic exercise that produces these changes help them to understand their bodies better.
- Aerobic exercise has also been shown to distract anxious people from their repetitive thoughts.
- Exercise that pays close attention to movement and breathing (such as yoga or qigong) helps people to notice what is going on in their bodies. This means they can control their emotions better at other times as their bodies give them an early warning when they are feeling stressed. In one study, participants with PTSD were found to be below the threshold for diagnosis once they had completed a course of yoga.
- Exercising with other people, with synchronous action, improves self-esteem. Studies have shown that such synchronicity makes us more likely to like the people we’re with and to recall what they say and what they look like. A recent study found that participants felt better about themselves too when they had copied the movements of others. The explanation for this lies in the fact that humans are social beings and our brain development and well being is related to care and nurture.
- The challenge of exercise increases resilience over time. As people become used to facing physical challenges they begin to become more confident facing challenges elsewhere in their lives.
So how is it possible to find the motivation to exercise? When it's bad weather, when people feel low, unmotivated or anxious it’s hard to think about.
- Feeling rubbish is a great reason to do some exercise. It energizes us after just one session and helps us to feel better. It's the perfect antidote to the winter blues.
- Recognise that exercise doesn’t have to be unpleasant. The “no pain, no gain” is an unhelpful myth. Helpful exercise doesn’t have to be a treadmill in a windowless gym. Think about the things you enjoy. For example, do you enjoy gardening? That counts as exercise. It's a bit difficult at the moment with snow on the ground, but you could be like me and shovel snow off the path. If you enjoy being with other people, how about using enforced time indoors to research group walks? If you liked dancing in the past, how about Zumba? If the thought of an exercise class fills you with dread, put on some music and dance in the kitchen. This is a great thing to do in a snow storm. It doesn’t have to be hard, it just has to make you feel warmer after a few minutes to be effective. The warmth has an added benefit on a cold day!
- Any exercise is better than no exercise. If the recommended 150 minutes a week seems an impossible dream, start small and work towards it. Try a five minute walk and see if you can walk five minutes’ more. Gradually work towards three ten minute walks a day. As you move more, you will gain more energy and be able to try different things.
- Feeling tired? Regular exercise will energise you rather than drain you. It will give you the energy you need to perform other tiring tasks like looking after the children.
- Try and workout at the time of day when your energy levels are at their highest. If that means waiting until the weekend, that’s OK. You’ll still benefit.
- Being with a friend can be a great motivator. Who do you know who might want to work out with you?
- Apps, for example, Map My Walk, can be helpful. Step counters, fitbits, apple watches - anything that measures your activity - can be motivating too.
- Think about your daily life and how you could make exercise a natural part of it. This could include housework, mowing the lawn or sweeping the patio. Walking to buy a paper rather than driving. Using the stairs at work rather than the lift. Walking the children to school or taking them to the park on the way home and playing tag. Walking around when the TV adverts come on or you need a break from the computer. During this week not only have I been clearing the footpath of snow each day I'm also doing more housework to make sure I reach my exercise goals. There's no need not to exercise!
Try ditching your old ideas about exercise. Work out what will be fun for you and give it a go.
I talked about movement and the weather in my video this week. If you're reading this on email you can watch it at www.thegoodenoughmum.com/videos