Staying Active - Stephen Mordue
Staying active is embedded in our social conscience, whether or not we do it, or do it sufficiently. During ‘lockdown’ one thing the government has placed emphasis on consistently is that we can go outside and exercise as long as we follow the other rules like social distancing. This is sound advice as staying active has so many beneficial effects on both our physical and mental well-being. In this article I will explore the benefits of staying active on both and, though it may seem strange, I’m going to start by looking at rest.
Many of us are having to work harder, or at least differently, which can feel like ‘harder’, in the current circumstances we find ourselves in. Indeed, it may be that even for those furloughed they are having to ‘work harder’ to maintain their well-being, home educate their children, and deal with the problems the current situation has thrown up. Huffington (in the foreword to Pang’s book ‘Rest’ (2018)) says that hard work and rest function in partnership and that each sustain us in some way. When we think of work and rest as being in competition with each other, rather than complimentary, we can fall into the trap of taking rest less seriously and can even avoid it (Pang 2018). Chatterjee (2018) says we must give ourselves permission to relax. Failure to rest and relax, he says, has a negative impact on your digestive system, impacts on your immune system, and can risk leaving you in state of stress awash with cortisol which is our ‘stress hormone’. Hansen (2017) points out that this stress hormone is poison to the brain causing brain cells in the hippocampus to die and, over time (months), can lead to a shrinking of the hippocampus. Some of us work in routinely stressful jobs and as a consequence can normalise stress to the point we don’t ‘see’ it anymore. This has consequences for our well-being.
The second thing Pang (2018) points us to after telling us that work and rest are partners is that rest is active. Physical activity is more restful than we might first imagine and there is a relationship here with mental well-being. Exercise helps to keep bodies well but also keeps the mind sharp and focussed. Exercise has been shown to improve attention, planning, and the ability to maintain executive function, the set of mental skills that includes memory, thinking, and self-control (Hansen 2017). In fact, mental rest is also more active than we might think it is. When resting our brains through not actively thinking about things, ‘work’ continues at a sub-conscious level. This is due, in part, to the activation of our default mode network, a series of interconnected parts of our brain that get to work on inward-focussed cognition once we stop concentrating. I’m sure we’ve all had a moment when a solution about something we’ve been turning over in our heads comes to us ’out of nowhere’ when we weren’t thinking about it!
It’s important to note that staying active is not simply about what we would term exercise. There is an important differentiation to make here because people can often be put off ‘staying active’ by the very thought of ‘exercise’. Our relationship to exercise can be a complicated one rooted in muddy school cross-country runs and team sports we weren’t any good at. We need to overturn the myth that physical activity and exercise doesn’t just happen in particular types of clothing (shorts and a t-shirt) in particular places (gyms), but rather that it is simply a part of life that can happen anywhere. In ‘lockdown’ we have seen that embraced to the full. Not only are we been encouraged to go outside for a period of time every day to exercise but suddenly exercise has been brought into our homes through online classes. The secret with exercise is to find something you enjoy! While washing the car, gardening and housework all play their part in a healthy active lifestyle exercise, the active engagement in focussed physical activity with a specific purpose, is still important. As the Chief Medical Officer in the UK says, “Some is good, more is better” (2019, pg. 35).
The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. That’s just over 20 minutes per day. Or, you could aim for 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week as an alternative. That all seems fairly achievable. The government advice from the CMO says that we also need to balance three elements of physical activity, which are cardiovascular activity (something that gets you breathless), strength building activity, and stretching or balance activities. So how can we achieve these?
The easiest way to achieve this is to utilise your outdoor time. You just need a comfortable pair of shoes and you can head out for a walk. Walk briskly so that you get a little breathless and aim for 20 minutes a day, a little more if you can. If you want to be more vigorous then you could try running. Obviously, you are going to need some trainers and comfortable clothes. Usually I would advise checking with your GP before starting but, as things stand, that may be difficult. If you have any underlying health conditions you may want to stick to gentle exercise until you can get advice. But, if not, take some responsibility for yourself; start slowly and build up. When starting to exercise it is easy to do too much out of initial enthusiasm – try to avoid this. Alternate running and walking and build up slowly, using a couch to 5k app if you’d find coaching helpful. If you’re used to running, go for it! Use your outdoor time to keep up with your good habit. You can also get a good cardio workout at home through workout videos and dancing. I’ve done Zumba in lockdown in the living room in an online group! There are many others.
When people think of strength building, they immediately think of weightlifting and whilst that is a good way to build strength, it’s not easily accessible at home to all… except that’s not entirely true! You have the perfect heavy thing with you, right now, at your disposal. Your body! You can use the weight of your body to build up strength, and, if my friends on Facebook are right, during lockdown there is maybe a little more weight available to us in our bodies than there was a few weeks back…. There certainly is in mine! There are lots of online resources that will show you how to do squats, press-ups, crunches, and other exercises correctly. ‘Form’ (how you do the exercise safely) is crucial here so have a look at how to do these things if you’ve not done them before.
Stretching or balance activities
My ‘go to’ activity here is yoga. It also has an element of mindfulness or meditation in it so it’s a win-win for me. The activities of yoga work on your flexibility and alleviate stiffness. This is particularly important when you are sat at your desk all day as lots of us are now having moved to business being conducted on line in front of a computer. We also may be sitting more while restricted to our homes so stretching regularly would be good. My personal favourite is Yoga with Adriene https://www.youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene. The YouTube videos are free to watch and there are lots of beginner’s classes to get you started. I do a yoga ‘flow’ as part of my morning routine most days and it really sets you up for the day. Whilst yoga is safe for most, it may not be safe for everyone. Please exercise caution with new yoga practice, especially if you have any health .
Chatterjee (2018) refers to exercise as a gateway habit. He says that if we can establish exercise as a routine then we will be able to establish routines in other places. This is particularly useful at the minute where routine may be difficult to maintain. I’ve written about the importance of routine here [link to the looking after your mental health article]. Applying yourself to something that may be a little uncomfortable and hard going can reap benefits in other areas of life where we need to overcome either physical or psychological discomfort. It can help us manage our stress response.
Hansen (2017) talking specifically about running, but the same applies to all physical activity to some extent, and explores the impact of exercise on our stress response. He says there is an impact on our cortisol level as we exercise regularly. Exercise does place a stress on the body so there is a cortisol response to it but, as you exercise regularly, the cortisol increase will be less and less. More than that though, “if you continue to exercise regularly, your level of cortisol will increase less and less, even when you are under stress from reasons other than training. Your body’s stress response, whether it be exercise or work-related, will improve as you become more physically fit. In a nutshell, training teaches the body to not overreact to stress” (Hansen 2017 loc.418).
As well as improving your cortisol response exercise ‘burns off’ the adrenaline which increases in our bodies when stressed. This is hugely beneficial as these hormones in our bodies in excess, over the long term, can cause serious health problems with excessive cortisol being linked scientifically to depression. Exercise also produces serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine which makes us feel good. Dopamine is part of the brains reward system and this system plays a significant role in fuelling motivation and drive. You will usually feel good and work more productively after exercise. While many of the benefits of exercise are achieved through regular activity it has even been noted that levels of these good hormones are increased somewhat after just one bout of vigorous or moderate exercise. Some is good. More is better!
Exercise also naturally raises your levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is a protein that stimulates the production of new brain cells and strengthens existing ones. When you release BDNF it helps grow brand new brain cells and pathways. High levels of BDNF makes you learn faster and remember better. BDNF also increases your brain’s plasticity – it’s ability to adapt. When you face stressful situations it protects brain cells and helps them come back stronger. Cardiovascular exercise is best for this, and while a one-off session does no harm, BDNF increases more effectively with regular engagement in exercise (Hansen 2017).
Exercise can be rest (Pang 2018) because it can help us switch off. Being active helps you shift focus from your mind to your body. In doing so we can reap the benefits of our ‘resting’ brains subconscious activity. I have always considered running as meditation in motion. As Haruki Murakami says in his wonderful running memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, ‘I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it another way: I run in order to acquire a void.’ (2009, p 17). Personally, I find I completely switch off to the day and focus on simply putting one foot in front of the other. I have found countless times that, either while running, or as soon as I stop, a revelation is made about something I’d been tussling with at my desk. My brain had been working on it while I wasn’t actively thinking!
Here’s your staying active checklist:
Think about how active you already are. Lots of things you do in your day to day life are good examples of physical activity like gardening, doing the laundry and washing the car. Give yourself some praise if you are regularly doing these sorts of things.
Then, try to do at least half an hour a day of moderate activity or half an hour of vigorous activity, about 3 times a week.
If you’ve not exercised before, seek medical advice if you can do so safely in the current situation (particularly if you have an underlying health condition), and take it easy.
Exercise with someone else – this helps motivation. As things stand this would need to be with a family member, or as directed by the current government guidance.
Plan it – write it in your diary or on your calendar. Writing something down psychologically commits you to it and it stands more chance of happening. (This works for everything, not just exercise!)
Do something ….and remember the Chief Medical Officers Advice ‘Some is good, more is better’
And remember, the benefits of exercise go far beyond the physical. Exercise is a great stressbuster and is good for your brain.
Stephen Mordue is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland. As well as teaching about Adult Care on the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes he is Practice Learning Coordinator and Programme Leader for the Best Interests Assessment in Practice Programme. He was a social work practitioner and manager for 12 years working mainly with older people and their families. His areas of special interest are effective communication, working with people with dementia, the Mental Capacity Act, and self care and productivity for professionals. You can read more about wellbeing in his book, available here; https://www.criticalpublishing.com/how-to-thrive-in-professional-practice or by visiting Stephen’s blog for self care www.selfcareshorts.com and social care socialworkshorts.co.uk
Chatterjee, R (2018) The 4 Pillar Plan. London: Penguin Random House.
Chief Medical Officer (2019) UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines. London: Department of Health and Social Care.
Hansen, A. (2017) The Real Happy Pill (Kindle Edition) New York: Skyhorse Publishing
Murakami, H (2009) What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. London: Vintage.
Pang, A. S-K, (2018) Rest: Why you get more done when you work less London: Penguin Random House UK