So, what’s your relationship like with exercise!? On and off? Non existent? Gym bunny!? What exercise did you do last week? What are you planning this week? And why does it matter?
Exercise is the second element in the self care trinity (more here). We’ve already talked about the importance of sleep so let’s grapple with this component and figure out why it’s good for us… because it is…. honest!
There are obvious physical benefits to exercise like improving bone density, promoting muscle growth, keeping you supple, promoting healthy skin …and the list goes. But I’d like to concentrate here on the impact on our psychological and emotional well being. Is exercise a stress buster!?
You are sat at your desk and you have a million things to do, so many things you don’t know what to do next, and your boss pitches up and asks if you can fit in doing something else! How do you feel! Overwhelmed, angry, tearful? People feel a range of things in these situations and sometimes these emotions are not helpful. Some of these emotions activate our ‘fight or flight’ response. When we feel threatened in some way our body prepares us for action by flushing us full of cortisol and adrenaline so that we are ready to respond. This useful reaction harks back to our days as hunter gatherers where we would need to run away from big scary things like tigers! These chemicals prepare us for flight – a physical response…. or indeed ‘fight’ ….but maybe not in the tiger scenario!
But the modern world is not like that. For a lot of us we are sat at our desks when we feel threatened. Here we are threatened by the demands of the job, not an animal with hostile intent (unless that’s how you think about your boss! ;0)). But our bodies don’t know that. So, they sense the threat and prepare the response and you then…. continue to sit there. But your body is ready! Fully armed to fight or flee. In his book “When the Body Says No, The Cost of Hidden Stress”, Gabor Mate tells us that “stress affects and involves virtually every tissue in the body” (pg. 33) and acts on tissues in the immune system. When stress is chronic, that is long term, it leads to an overactive immune system that produces toxic chemicals in the body. He goes on to explain that for many who are in constant state of stress they normalise what stress feels like so are not conscious of feeling stressed despite their body still initiating the internal chemical stress response. He gives many examples in the book of current research that is making strong links between chronic stress and diseases like Alzheimers and MS.
So, what does this have to do with exercise? Well, exercise reduces, burns off if you like, cortisol and adrenaline. As I say, the fight or flight response has produced these chemicals to prepare you for physical action, so, physical action is required to use it up. Given the reality that stress is unavoidable in life, and in many ways short periods of stress can be useful as it give impetus and motivation, exercise needs to be an essential component of self care to mitigate against a bodily chemical response that, for most office based stressors, is not required in the way it once was.
Not only does exercise use up cortisol and adrenaline it produces dopamine. Dopamine is released during pleasurable activities like enjoying food and sex as well as physical exertion through exercise. Deficiency in dopamine has been linked to depression. You may well have heard the term ‘runners high’ which is that euphoric feeling you feel after a run. That’s where it comes from! Exercise also produces noradrenaline, which regulates mood, learning and memory, and produces serotonin, a lack of which has been linked to a range of health conditions.
Rest easy though… we are not talking about turning you into a marathon runner! One single session of exercise has been shown to improve mental performance, give faster mental processing, clear your head, make you more effective at planning, improve memory, and improve self control!
A study by Bristol University showed that exercise boosted mood and motivation by 41% and increased the ability to deal with stress by 20% …..and we’re only talking about a walk that leaves you a little out of breath – the perfect thing to do on your lunch break (have a look here to read about the importance of a lunch break)!
Researcher Pulg-Riberia and colleagues analysed a Sit Less Move More worked based programme and found that by simply engaging in some gentle exercise during the working day there was an improvement in staff retention, sickness levels, and a reduction in stress which led to more mindful work practice. What a huge benefit to employer and employee!
So, how are you going to go about this? Are you going to ‘go about’ it? I hope this little insight into some of the evidence suggest to you that you should….
Firstly, if you’ve not exercised in a while, or ever, get yourself checked out at you GP surgery and then make a plan! I love a plan! And here’s some tips!
– Walk before you run! Literally and metaphorically! Start small.
– Do what you love. If you try running and don’t like it – don’t do it! There are so many options… walking, yoga, resistance training, exercise classes, gardening, washing the car – they all count! Just do them at a pace that leaves you a little breathless
– Write it in your calendar. There is so much evidence that shows if you write it down you are more likely to do it.
– Prepare. Make sure you have what need. Make it easy for yourself. Put your kit out the night before, our your trainers by the door.
– Exercise with someone. This is probably the best advice for people starting out. If you commit to do something with someone else you won’t want to let them down. So get yourself a walking buddy and get going!
The Department of Health (UK) recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise like walking or swimming per week. That’s two and a half hours, or, half an hour a day over 5 days. So if you go for a half hour walk everyday in your lunch break (….have you got the point about taking a lunch break yet!?) you’ll have done what the government recommend! That’s it! You’re done! Go you!!
If you want to be more vigorous and go for a run they suggest only 75 minutes is required! That’s a couple of half hour plus a bit runs and you’re done! Easy!
You should also include some stretching (have a look here) and strength training. Strength training doesn’t need to be lifting weights but can be simply engaging in some exercises that use your body weight. Have a look here.
…and I’ll leave you with this