Here comes Spring!
April is our opportunity to focus on Being Active!
The idea of starting an exercise plan can be exciting and also overwhelming. If you are bursting with energy to get out into the sunshine or onto the treadmill, feel free to follow that momentum and go forth! This month's article will be focused on a range of levels from starting slow, to jumping in at full-speed ahead.
Hopefully you have experienced the benefits of exercise for yourself. Perhaps you can remember a day when you felt especially anxious and all your body wanted to do was move. If you were able to move, you likely felt the release of energy and subsequent increased calmness that came with following that instinct to move. Perhaps you can remember a day when you felt especially depressed and your body did NOT want to move at all, but maybe you found that small part of you that was inspired to go for a walk. If you were able to move, you likely felt the release of some of that built-up sadness or maybe the light at the end of the tunnel became visible or a little brighter.
While exercise is not the magical and sole solution to any problem, including mental health, it sure can be a support and get things moving in a more functional direction. Article after article talks about the benefits of being active on our overall sense of well-being. There is also ample research demonstrating the positive affects of exercise (as little as 10-15 minutes) on memory, depression, anxiety, focus and learning. Increases in levels of glutamate, cortisol, dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin contribute to better management of stress and sadness. Some exciting studies have even shown an increase in hormones that impact neurogenesis, the process by which our brain continues to grow and create new neurons. (Basso, J.C. & Suzuki, W.A. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review.)
(Before we get started, please be sure to check with your primary care provider and any other health providers involved in your care to be certain which interventions are right for you. Only you and your providers know your body and your health needs best, so be certain to avoid any recommendations on this page that contradict information provided to you by your doctor, nurse practitioner, physical therapist, dietician, mental health specialist or other providers.)
Now that you know what you have to gain, let's get going!
Week 1: Take a Walk
That's right. Walk. This week we are focusing on walking. You may love to run (and you are welcome to do so!), but this week's focus will be the value of walking. I found the great thing about walking is that you can go at a slow pace or a super speedy pace and obtain benefits from either one. In fact, my speediest pace of walking is sometimes faster than a jog with less impact on my joints. For folks that are concerned about physical abilities and the attempt at movement, walking can be a more comfortable and reasonable place to start.
Beyond your pace, you also want to consider location. Walking is great because you can step outside your front door and walk, you can drive to the mall and walk the length of it over and again, you can find a local track (indoor or outdoor) and walk, you can access a trail system, you can find a flat walking path or a steep walking path, you can walk on a treadmill and you can even walk in the pool. Our local community pool has a great lazy river in which you will find people walking either with or against the current, around and around.
Lastly, consider the length of time you walk. Time magazine recently published an article on the value of just 10 minutes of exercise (check it out here). You may need to start with 5 minutes and work your way up. Maybe you walk 4 minutes on Monday and increase by one minute for each day that goes by. As you reach the end of the week you will have achieved a 10 minute walk that you will be proud of and most certainly benefiting from.
Remember that even though exercise has other physical health benefits, this week we are focused on the mental health benefits. A 10 minute brisk walk will absolutely produce the neurochemistry necessary to start combating stress and sadness. It will also change your mental perspective by providing a distraction and causing you to focus on your walk. Pair the walk with a friend and you will even add in some valuable social support!
Week 2: Use the Living Room
Getting outside can be so wonderful, but you might have lots of reasons why you need to stay home. Some folks have physical limitations that make a walk out the front door difficult. Others have small children or aging parents that require arranging for a caregiver while they are outside their home. Depending on the time of year and location of your home, the weather may not be super cooperative for getting outside easily. For some folks, there are mental health barriers to leaving the house, such as fears of public places or groups of people. In short, maybe leaving the house is not the answer.
Exercising at home may be necessary or may be a choice you make. There are so many options for staying right in your own living room, so why not? YouTube is full of just about any type of exercise routine you can think of, with instructors coming from a wide range of backgrounds and experience. Pull up some videos and choose something that fits with your interests, personality and style. You might even get some of your family members engaged in the activity as they are motivated by your efforts! Check out the following videos as a start to your discovery of what fits your needs best:
POPSUGAR Fitness: 10 Minutes - No Equipment
Fitness Blender: Low-Impact Cardio
Walk at Home: Interval Training
Adriene: 10 Minute Yoga
Keep looking! There are so many videos out there; you are sure to find one that suits your needs.
Beyond YouTube videos, there are great lists of online workouts you can do at home: check some out at Health.com or Fitness Magazine. Dr. Axe has some fun ideas and tips on "micro workouts." Check out his 10-minute workouts here.
I know you can carve out 10 minutes between activities at home to squeeze in some exercise. Let's get going!
Week 3: Join a Group
The value of social support is immeasurable. With the advent of meet-up groups becoming more and more popular, you can easily join a group of people to participate in like-minded exercise endeavors. Beyond meet-ups, there are also clubs and organizations in every community that cater to being physically active. You might try joining a bicycling group or a mall-walkers club. You may find a group in a class setting, such as a yoga or tai chi class. You might choose to join an athletic club and participate in group activities, such as zumba, spin or other fitness classes.
Group dynamics are an impressive force. Humans are much more engaged in an activity when we have a partner or a group of people to help motivate us. The group dynamic produces a sense of community, but also a sense of commitment that encourages us to follow through and remain on task. Groups provide structure and direction. A class has a specific time limit and identified goals and activities for the time allotted. A walking group has a destination and a pace. Larger groups allow us to break into smaller groups, identifying ourselves with folks among the group that are at our same level. Speaking of identifying with folks in the group, remember that group activities also give us an opportunity to connect with other humans, make friends, not feel so alone in our endeavors and normalize our level of ability.
Want more information on the benefits of exercising with a crowd? Take a look at this article published by NBC, citing several studies that support the value of working out in numbers as it increased motivation and success.
I'm definitely trying to make a case for joining a group activity this week, but I know that some of you are thinking its too much trouble, too embarrassing, you're too shy, you won't know anyone or any other number of social barriers. Consider some of the following options for providing yourself with some encouragement:
1. Think of an activity you know you already like and bring your own group together.
2. Ask some other parents during pick-up or drop-off if they want to go for a walk after picking the kids up from school one day.
3. Plan a group activity for coworkers over the weekend and post your plan in the break room.
4. Tell your best friend that you need a group activity for this week and ask them to plan it for you.
5. Grab your siblings or parents and make it a family outing.
6. Use an online live-streaming group activity option, such as one found at Shape.com
Remember that a group activity can be as little as 3 people, so don't push yourself to go to a big jazzercise class if it will ramp your social anxiety up beyond the benefits of the exercise. Also remember that being social is part of being human and encouraging ourselves to engage in one group activity may be something we have to talk ourselves through, but will be worth the effort. This month, try to be creative with your solution-finding to prioritize a little exercise. This means thinking about all the ways you CAN make it work instead of focusing on why it will not. You can do this!
Read this article at Active.com for more information and ideas on the benefits of group exerices, as well as overcoming challenges.
Week 4: Try Something New
Sometimes we need a change of scenary to prod our motivation. A start to this week might be to re-read the January Balance Blog on creativity. Check out Week 3 for some ideas on Creativity and Movement. I'm certain there is at least one option on the list that you have yet to try. Start with ones that sound interesting or ones that you have always been wanting to try, but don't shy away from ones that you might not have considered. Those might be the very activities that keep you interested, motivated and committed!
There are all kind of exercise ideas, including stretching, cardio and weight-training. Within these categories you can find a wide variety of options. This week you may decide to try something new for the whole week, or try something new each and every day.
Need more convincing to get moving? Try this article by the American Psychological Association on the amazing benefits of exercise on the brain and mood.
THANKS FOR BEING ACTIVE WITH ME THIS MONTH!
A note about building habits: There has been varying research about making habits and how long this might take. While we are undertaking a month focused on different areas of wellness, my hope is that the habit you are creating is one of seeking health and well-being in your life. By creating this habit over the course of a year, you will undoubtedly have oriented yourself to this goal to the degree necessary to make it habitual. The contents of each month, including this exercise month, may not specifically become habits without more focused effort. My hope for you in this regard is that you will find something during at least one week each month that connects with you. That week should be the building block for future endeavors and habit-forming behaviors as you identify throughout each and every month the activities that motivate and encourage your health and wellness plan.
Disclaimer: Speak with your primary care provider about any health concerns your may have and the level of exercise appropriate to your physical health needs. Do not engage in any of the activities mentioned above if your primary care provider or any specialist involved in your care has advised against it. Speak with your mental health provider about the benefits of the above-mentioned activities and follow their recommendations on any necessary modifications or additions to the ideas shared here. You and your health providers know your body best, so make sure you are incorporating everything you read with the wisdom they are providing and your own internal source of wisdom. Remain in contact with your providers through any and all activity endeavors to be certain you are continuing on the path that is best for you. If you experience light-headedness, dizziness, sharp pain, chest pain, leg cramps, an inability to breathe or irregular heartbeats, STOP IMMEDIATELY and consult your provider for further activity recommendations.