Physical wellness is an important part of our mental health and improving our physical fitness will impact our overall mental resiliency.

by Janice Mitchell

A physiotherapist once said to me “motion is lotion”.  The message was clear, our bodies need to move in order to function at our best.  Both physically and mentally! Yes, “motion is lotion” for our brain as well as our bodies. Physical and mental health are truly friends for life. 

The Evidence 

Perhaps this is intuitive for some, but the science now provides irrefutable evidence that physical health is inextricably linked to mental health and wellbeing. 

Many of us have been regaled with the benefits of exercising from losing weight, reducing health risks, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, maintaining a strong musculoskeletal system, to name just a few. But in recent years the research has shown that maintaining good physical health can also have a significant impact on mental health. Regular exercise has been shown to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduce stress, and increase overall mood. One of the main reasons for this is that physical exercise increases the release of endorphins in the brain, which helps to relieve tension in our body and enhance our mental state.

Physical Activity Guidelines

There are a number of expert opinions on how much exercise we need. One source that I subscribe to is the Mayo Clinic, their Department of Health and Human Services recommends that individuals get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, spread out over the course of a week. In addition, individuals should do strength training at least twice per week.  

Moderate aerobic exercises include activities such as brisk walking, swimming and mowing the lawn. Vigorous aerobic exercise includes activities such as running and aerobic dancing.  Strength training can include the use of weight machines, your own body weight, resistance tubing or resistance paddles in the water, or, activities such as rock climbing. 

A general goal is to aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. You achieve more health benefits if you ramp up your exercise to 300 minutes or more per week.

Reducing sitting time is also important. The more hours you sit each day, the higher your risk of metabolic problems.

Personally, I would also add stretching into your routine. This can be incorporated into small time-outs from sitting for extended periods of time. And, as part of your regular exercise routine especially during the cool down phase. 

Feel a time crunch? Even brief bouts of activity offer benefits. For instance, if you can’t fit in one 30-minute walk during your day, try a few five-minute walks instead. Any activity is better than none at all. 

Choices: Choosing that Right Activity for You.

We come in different sizes, shapes and disposition, therefore, one exercise or activity program does not fit all. Today we have an abundance of options to choose from when it comes to being active. Technology provides us with unlimited choices of exercise videos from on-line yoga and pilates classes to aerobic workouts and strengthening routines. 

Technology aside, there is no end to gyms, fitness centres and personal trainers, pools, ice-skating rinks, volleyball, basketball, tennis and pickleball courts… the list is endless. But if on-line, in-door, or organized sports are not your thing, then there are a variety of solo or “buddy” enterprises such as going outside for a walk, jog, hike, cycle or gardening. There really is a smorgasbord of activity options. 

Do you Suffer from an Activity Deficit? 

So with so much to choose from, why do some humans gravitate to the couch or sitting for hours in front of a computer screen? Could it be that our “mind” work is taking precedent? Could it be that doing some form of physical activity is taking a back seat to our mental activities? This is a big question to unravel.  But if this is one you grapple with perhaps it is time for a heart to heart. Yes, a “brain to body” conversation.  Need help taking action? Read on. 

Take Action: Physical and Mental Health

  1. Take stock of your current activity level. Are you getting 30 minutes of physical activity a day? How long are you sitting or remaining inactive for? I suggest keeping a daily log or diary of your activity time for at least a week. It can be an eye-opener. With today’s technology, there are a number of activity tracking apps you could explore.
  1. Choose your activities. OK, so now that you have some idea of how much, or, how little activity you engage in; ask yourself ‘what activities do I like to do?’, or, would like to try.  Choose activities that are right for you. If you aren’t sure, consult with a fitness or health specialist, especially if you have physical limitations or health concerns. 
  1. Make a daily activity plan. Decide on what, when, and how. Start on a Monday, for example, and schedule in 20-30 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity, 10-15 minutes of strengthening activity (lifting soup cans work!), and 10-15 minutes of stretching. Depending on your fitness level, start small and increase gradually. Be sure to set reasonable goals, otherwise, you could set yourself up for disappointment.  
  1. Put your plan in action. Give your plan a try for at least 6 weeks. Chart your progress. 
  1. Monitor your progress. Are you able to stick with the plan, or do you need to modify it? Are you noticing a difference? Remember big changes don’t happen overnight.  But you should feel some short term benefits, such as improvements in your mood and ability to concentrate, feeling less stiff, or more energized. Remember that daily log? You may want to add a note about the changes you’re experiencing.
  1. The best part. Reward yourself. This might be as simple as self-congratulation or a piece of chocolate!  
  1. Keep going. Make physical activity an integral part of your life and reap the rewards. Your body and your mind will thank you.  

And then Along came COVID-19

Now more than ever we are faced with new challenges that have altered our lives on so many levels as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us are now working from home, limiting our social interactions, and a lot of us are less active. So it comes as no surprise that many of us are feeling more stressed. As tough as it is, we need to be looking after ourselves and remaining as active as possible. It’s all about adapting to this new normal. Here are some suggestions:

  • Technology can fill the void. For example, there are a number of free workout videos online and virtual yoga classes that you can choose from. 
  • Use social media or video-conferencing to connect to family or friends and challenge each other to fun workouts. 
  • Go for a daily walk or a cycle, being mindful of physical distancing. The benefits of getting outdoors cannot be overstated.  

Remember physical activity can boost our mood and strengthen our resilience at times like these. 

One final thought

Think of your physical and mental health as good friends who are working together in your best interest.  They are your friends for life. 

Janice Mitchell is a Health Consultant and Life Coach with MyWorkplaceHealth. Janice has extensive experience in workplace health planning and facilitation. As a consultant in the B.C. Health Care and Community Social Service sector, she developed and delivered a variety of workshops that focused on both physical and mental health and facilitated system-wide workplace health strategies. For more information about Janice check our her bio and contact MyWorkplaceHealth for a workplace consultation through our contact page.