Updated: Feb 9, 2021
Depression, anxiety and burnout are becoming the biggest illnesses in the modern world. We wake up without motivation, feeling tired and any kind of activity is exhausting, even preparing breakfast. Stepping out and deciding to make a change is on us: is it scary? yes. Is it frightening? yes. But no one else will do the change for us.
Mental wellbeing, often followed by physical wellbeing or the other way around, it can be achieved in many ways. Hence in this series of "Ladders to wellbeing", I will write about different ways you can impact positively your mental health. Note that, if you decide to apply one way or another method in your life, do it for yourself and not for others. You want to be happy, recover and shine for yourself and not for your neighbour, colleagues, family or even your ex.
Let's start with the first step (and my favourite): Exercising!
Less is better than nothing
Body movement is a vital part of the human beings. We were created to move, starting by hunting and walking miles to find the next water fountain. The "funny" thing is that, at the same time, the human body is a lazy one: if you give the chance to rest and sit all day in the couch, the body won't want anything else but to continue with this sedentary behaviour. And the modern life is not far from a sedentary lifestyle. Think about it... a usual day of someone working in the office would be to sit early in the morning in the car or public transport, commute to work, sit on a desk at least for 8 hours and come back home to eat and then, sleep.
I don't sleep well. My mood is low and it feels hard to get out of my house. I feel heavy, like swollen. I am irritated most of the days.
Modern mental illnesses have different impact on our body and mind. Everyone has different ways to express and cope with them. If combined with a sedentary behaviour, we are creating a pretty dangerous environment for our mental health and eventually, for our lives. Now, what is the role of exercising? According to studies, physical activity is one of the keys to boost our mood and help us improving our life quality.
Getting regular exercise is important for good physical and mental health. Exercise can help stimulate parts of your brain that aren’t as responsive when you’re feeling depressed. It also promotes the release of feel-good brain chemicals. It may also help distract you from your worries and improve your confidence.
Physical activity can be defined as any activity that gets your body moving, makes your breathing become quicker and your heart beat faster (health.gov.au).
Exercising helps stimulate the release of feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins and serotonin. While endorphins help relieve pain and stress, serotonin will boosts your mood and overall sense of well-being (healthline, 2020). Rising serotonin levels can also help improve your appetite and sleep cycles, which are often negatively affected by, for example, depression.
Starting to exercise doesn't mean that you need to start running marathons or killing yourself at the gym though. If you are coming from a sedentary behaviour, you will need to start slow. For example, begin by walking every day 10 mins and then go adding minutes keeping in mind that the more active you are, the more you will benefit.
Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress.
According to the Australian Government Department of Health, physical activity will help you:
Reduce your risk of, or help manage, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and type 2 diabetes.
Maintain and/or improve your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Reduce your risk of, and assist with rehabilitation from, some cancers.
Help prevent unhealthy weight gain and assist with weight loss.
Build strong muscles and bones.
Create opportunities for socialising and meeting new people.
Help you to prevent and manage mental health problems.
Help you develop and maintain overall physical and mental well-being.
And indeed, those that we exercise regularly, we can agree that physical activity (in many of its forms) it helps to boost our mood and energy. Even if it is sometimes difficult to start.
First step towards increasing your physical activity
Find what makes you happy, even if this may sound strange... are there physical activities that make us so happy and released, that I want to continue practicing it? Yes, there are! You need to explore, try and quit until you find that activity that fits with your persona. I have students who come to me, try flexibility training and love it - or hate it. And I am happy those who love, they stay. Not everyone needs to necessarily like it!
I was always surrounded by sports. Still, as an adult, I tried different sports until I found my favorite and decided to focus on it: I played tennis, did contempo dancing, running long distances, spinning, kick boxing, pole dancing, pilates... Did I enjoy them? yes. Some I practiced longer, others I quitted due to life events. And those that I really enjoyed, I know I will come back to them at certain point in life.
We all need to start from somewhere and try. Don't be afraid on giving up a type of sports if that activity doesn't fit you. Maybe walking is just your thing, or playing basketball. Or crossfit, swimming or martial arts. We are all different, we all like different activities and we all need to just try. And by "just trying", you will also get to know more about yourself, for instance, what you like and what you don't like.
Step out there and start by doing at least 10min move for your health!
Tip number 2 is the most common one, and it can also be quite effective: transform your daily sedentary routines to active routines. Take a moment to think on the following points:
- Can I commute to work cycling, walking or even running (in case there are showers in the workplace)? If yes, you could start first alternating days and eventually, once you get used to it, going every day in an active mode to work. If not, we need to move to the next point.
- Can I take the stairs instead of the lift? If yes, prioritize stairs & health to speed. If not, let's move to the next point.
- Can you take a walk during lunch break? If yes, you could start first alternating days where you go for at least 30min walk during lunch.
If none of the points above are possible for you, I would like to challenge you to set an alarm for a walk of at least 30min as daily routine break. Getting fresh air together with movement will positively impact your mental health and boost your mood. There is nothing to lose (except for your wellbeing) but lots to gain!
Summarizing, exercising goes step by step and it is one of the key factors to influence our mental and physical wellbeing positively. Take a step out of your comfort zone and embrace this new journey towards physical activity! and always remember: less is better than nothing.