As we stay cooped up in our houses to keep each other safe, it’s all too easy to let exercise routines slip. With gyms closed and team sports cancelled, many struggle to find the motivation to get moving.
However, as we are reminded by the #InThisTogether mental health campaign, it is important to get sweaty – as even a small amount of exercise does wonders not just for our physical health, but our mental health as well.
HealthWISE mental health clinician Rod Cooper says there are three main ways physical activity benefits our mental health.
“The first reason is that when we’re stressed, anxious, depressed or really emotionally struggling our system changes. Our brain goes into a stress response,” he said. The brain will go into a fight, flight or freeze mode, which is an automatic response to threat or emergency. It then tells our body to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
“The problem for us is that we all have the same system, but it’s not very discriminative. It doesn’t have a logical aspect to it. It reacts, and it reacts based on our experiences of life and what the primitive part of our brain says is threatening or not. But when it reacts it’s totally automatic and it takes over,” Rod explained.
Adrenaline is there for action – to help us run or fight – but neither of those reactions can solve a problem like Coronavirus.
This means that our bodies are overproducing adrenaline that has nowhere to go. As a result, our muscles may tense, we could feel on edge or have an unsettled stomach. Cortisol normally ‘switches off’ the adrenaline response, but this system can fail when we are chronically stressed. Over time, too much adrenaline and cortisol can work against us, affecting our short term memory or immune system.
“So what happens when we exercise is we burn up that accumulated build-up of adrenaline and cortisol in our system. And that’s a really good thing, and it’s probably the only way we can do it,” Rod said.
Another mental health benefit to exercise is that it can force you to live in the moment.
“When you’re stressed you don’t spend so much time in the present. You spend a lot more time worrying about what’s going to happen next, anticipating the next upset or the next danger, or going over and over and over all the things that went wrong in the past,” Rod said.
“When you’re doing some intense exercise or even just mild or moderate exercise, you’re not in the same headspace that you were when you weren’t exercising. For example, when you’re walking you’re having to look where you’re going – if you’re not paying attention to where you’re going, you’ll walk into things. So it forces you back into the present.”
On top of this, exercise can simply make us feel good. In fact research shows that in some situations, exercise can be more effective than antidepressant medication.
“At the end of a brief period of exercise, you feel good, you feel like you’ve achieved something,” Rod said.
Current guidelines recommend at least 60 minutes of physical activity for children aged 5-12 and two hours for 3-5 year olds a day and 2-3 hours a week for adults. Rod admits this is a challenge for many while social distancing, but encourages families to get creative. Jumping on the trampoline, going for bike rides or walks, or playing backyard volleyball are all good possibilities, and there are many more suggestions on the internet.
“It has to be quite energetic and it’s probably going to work best if adults have some involvement,” Rod said, and encouraged parents to find ways to make physical activity fun for the youngsters.
“A lot of us parents as first time home-school teachers have discovered that you can’t just completely translate the school routine to home. It doesn’t work. What does work is turning out a little bit of a routine and having a lot of incidental activities – cooking or making little games up and fun things. That seems to work quite well.”
For adults if you can’t manage 10,000 steps a day in your backyard, start with 500. Consider taking up an online yoga, aerobics or Zumba class.
“When we’re stressed, we tend to bolt back to the old ways of behaving. We tend to do the things that aren’t always helpful because we’re better at doing them – we’re more practised at sedentary living or doing nothing. So I guess the big challenge with exercise is actually just doing, getting started,” Rod said.
“Exercise is good for mental health. You do need that regular physical activity. It is more challenging at the moment, but it’s also an opportunity to try different things and be more creative.”