I know that exercise is good for me, but that doesn’t mean I always manage to do it. Some mornings the very last thing I feel like doing is getting out of bed and heading outside to run. But as hard as that first step is, I don’t think I’ve ever regretted going – even when it’s raining and freezing cold!
Exercise really does make you feel good: physically and mentally. Endorphins work in tandem with serotonin and noradrenaline to give you exercisers high. But there’s more to it than just the chemical benefit. One of the side benefits I experience from running is it helps me to believe in myself because if I can manage to do couch to 5k then literally anyone can! Which shows how exercise, when done right, helps us to thrive.
How exercise fights stress
Right now, I’m finding running a great distraction and a good stress management tool. Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky believes that exercise may well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities and Tal Ben-Shahar, author of Happier, suggests that not exercising is like taking depressants.
Exercise ameliorates stress in multiple ways. The stress response puts us into fight or flight mode, a response that would be helpful if we were facing an immediate physical threat, but you can’t run away from invisible omnipresent stressors, like COVID-19 or an overflowing inbox. That’s where exercise comes in. By exercising we give our body the physical workout it needs to close the stress cycle and take us out of the fight or flight state.
According to a study published in The Lancet, researchers at Yale and Oxford found that people who exercise regularly reported feeling blue for 35 days a year, whereas non-active study participants reported feeling miserable for 53 days a year. That’s 18 more days of not feeling all that great which you could avoid.
Being inactive compromises our mental wellbeing because it promotes higher stress levels, lower emotional regulation and reduced production of mood enhancing hormones. Meaning that the more we feel stressed, the more we need to consciously resist the pull of the sofa, snacks and Netflix!
How much do you need to exercise to reap the benefits?
The good news is you don’t need to do a lot of exercise to reap the benefits. Adam Chekroud of Yale University found that physical activity contributes to better mental well-being only when it falls within a certain time frame. According to his research 3-5 exercise sessions, each lasting between 30 to 60 minutes, are ideal per week. His findings are confirmed by The Heart Foundation who recommend 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. That could be running, a brisk walk, cycling, swimming, skiing or even housework.
While it’s important to get moving, it’s equally important not to overdo it. Chekroud found that the mental health of participants who exercised for longer than three hours a day was actually worse than those who weren’t particularly physically active. So in this instance – less is more.
Exercise and the brain
If your brain is going to function well, it needs your body to be in optimal condition and vice versa. In her book How to Build a Healthy Brain, psychologist Kimberley Wilson states that physical activity has been shown to:
- reduce the risk of developing depression and anxiety and a lower the severity of depression
- increase brain volume and thus delay and even reverse ageing
- reduce the risk of dementia
- improve memory, attention and accuracy and academic achievement in children
- elevate mood and increase resilience to stress
In summary – movement protects the brain. It doesn’t really matter what you do, hardcore gym workout, a country walk to your favourite pub, or stretching it out in down dog, everything counts. So, get moving!
Make exercise a part of your routine
If you’re like me and struggle to keep exercise as a part of your daily routine when you get busy, the following might help you to keep the cobwebs off your trainers:
1. Find an exercise friend (Hello Rebecca!). It will make you accountable and increase the chance that you won’t always be starting tomorrow!
2. Choose activities you enjoy because you’re more likely to actually do it, and vary the type of activity you do, or the route you take on your walk or run, so that you don’t get bored.
3. Make an appointment with exercise. Decide the time of day you’re going to exercise, write it in your planner or your diary and treat it like the important commitment that it is.
4. Set small, realistic goals. Don’t go straight to “I’m going to run a marathon!” Maybe a 10-minute walk around the block is the perfect starting point.
5. Be kind to yourself. Some exercise is better than none. So, always choose some!
My happy teacher exercise resolution
I will get moving because people who stay active tend to be happier.
Next to sleep, regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do to promote your health and happiness. In the same way we take a daily vitamin tablet or a paracetamol for a headache, putting on our trainers and heading out the door should be something we prescribe ourselves as part of our everyday routine. In the words of Ken Nosaka, Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Western Australia: “Exercise is Medicine”.