Resume: Even small bouts of physical activity and exercise throughout the day can help improve your mental well-being.
Font: University of Toronto
As Toronto experiences a particularly bleak January, many may be wondering what they can do to improve their mental well-being.
Catherine Sabiston, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE), says physical exercise is a potentially important strategy.
“If people can engage in small bouts of physical activity throughout the day, even just one or two minutes at a time, and build up to 10 to 20 minutes per day, that’s beneficial,” he recommends.
Canada Research Chair in physical activity and mental health, Sabiston directs KPE’s Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Center (MPARC). The center studies the connections between physical activity and mental health, and develops and evaluates interventions to promote physical activity and mental well-being among people who are at risk of inactivity and mental health problems.
She also runs a six-week program called MoveU.HappyU that provides one-on-one counseling and training aimed at reducing student stress and anxiety through physical movement.
Writer Jelena Damjanovic recently sat down with Sabiston to discuss the benefits of movement for our bodies and minds.
It is well known that physical activity is good for the body, but there is increasing evidence that physical activity is also good for the soul. Can you explain the science behind this? How does our brain reward us for moving?
There are probably as many ways that physical activity helps our physical health as it does our mental health. Technically speaking, mental health is the very result of how our brains reward us for moving.
Our brains are responsible for many of the processes that make us feel, think, and act. When we are physically active, we enhance these systems through increases in cellular and molecular processes: cerebral blood flow, circulation of neurotrophic factors, a cascade of cellular mechanisms that positively affect the function of many brain regions.
When we are physically active, we also increase our body temperature, and feeling warmer makes us feel comfortable and safe. The warmth and comfort that come from being physically active are critical to mental health, and specifically to taking care of ourselves.
Also, as humans, we were meant to be more active than we currently are. If you think about our ancestors, the hunters, the gatherers, their days were filled with moving and working for all their needs. Since we have become more sedentary, our brains love it when we are really active, it brings us to an activity level where we should be. This is a kind of homeostasis where our activity level matches our natural intent as humans.
Beyond cells and molecules, what role does our mind play in the way we perceive the mental health benefits of physical activity?
Self-perception is an important indicator of mental health. By being physically active, we build a sense of mastery and confidence that not only helps us keep going, but also supports mental health.
Whether we are engaging in physical activity with others, virtually or in person, or whether we are outdoors being active and seeing other people around us, it all gives us a sense of support and community that helps build our mental health. . In fact, being physically active outdoors exacerbates all of the positive benefits, just like exercising with a dog.
How much physical activity (per day or per week) do we need to reap all these benefits?
There are all sorts of different guidelines around physical activity and the more recent Canadian movement guidelines have explored the mental health benefits a bit, but not to the same extent that they were designed for the physical health benefits.
The challenge with any guideline is that it is set by others and may not be achieved by everyone. So from a mental health perspective in particular, being a little more active and engaging in a little more movement every day is a good starting point. If people can engage in small bouts of physical activity throughout the day, even just a minute or two at a time, and build up to 10 to 20 minutes per day, that’s beneficial.
Research is in its infancy in terms of dose, frequency, and type of physical activity, but in general we know that any activity at intermittent times is helpful.
Does it matter if we are physically active in the morning, in the afternoon or at night?
In terms of benefits, we don’t yet know if one time of day is better than another, and if everyone will experience the benefits equally based on identity factors such as gender, race, and age.
It is essential to plan physical activity at a time of day when you can actually do it. That is more important than whether there is a better time. If I told you that nighttime is the best time and that you could never fit physical activity into your nighttime routine, then it wouldn’t be the best time.
Is all exercise equally good for us?
Technically, all exercise is good for us in terms of movement for mental health benefits. However, exercise that is unpleasant, causes pain, or is done for extrinsic reasons, eg because someone else is doing it or someone told you to, etc., is not good for us.
Also, adding small bursts of physical activity throughout the day can be beneficial if these bursts are intentional; for example, if we plan for them, we notice them and pay attention to what we do and how we feel.
Is ‘runners high’ a real thing or a myth? Can you feel good with any exercise?
The prototypical “runner’s high” has been used to describe any state during exercise when mind and body are in sync, aligned, and free of self-criticism and other thoughts, and you feel effortless as you blend in with your surroundings. Time flies by and overall you feel great.
“Runner’s high” is likely to be experienced in any exercise where these conditions are met, but it is often easier to experience over longer, non-repetitive distances outdoors, making it more conducive to running, rowing and riding a bike, for example. You are not likely to experience this state of flow during team sports or group activities due to the complexities of environments and people.
Also, while this runner’s rush or flow can be experienced at different exercise intensities, it’s more likely when you push yourself at least a little. There has to be some effort required to participate in the activity.
How has the MoveU.HappyU program helped students relieve stress and anxiety?
The program focuses on personalized physical activity for each individual, so we accept the fact that exercise should be enjoyable and builds confidence while promoting maintenance.
In the results of the six-week program, we saw significant decreases in stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression, while also seeing increases in feelings of confidence, mastery, quality of life, and self-esteem upon completion of the program.
What advice would you give students, and others, who want to become more physically active but cannot commit to a six-week program?
Here are some tips for including physical activity in your day:
- Look for on-campus drop-in programs and activities offered through the KPE Sports and Recreation Program. Try different activities and find your favorites that you can return to again and again.
- Try to build more distance into your movement: get off the bus or subway a stop or two early or late, park farther away from your destination, and take the long way to class. Always use the stairs or ramp instead of the elevator or escalator. Schedule an extra 20 minutes on your calendar to allow for your active commute.
- Move with intention but without a purpose. When you go shopping, move around the entire center or store instead of just buying what you need. For example, walk or roll every aisle in the supermarket, even if you only need vegetables. Navigate through the entire bookstore instead of just grabbing what you need.
- Move around with your coffee/tea/juice instead of sitting in the cafeteria. Try to have movement-based meetings with other people or while planning your group’s tasks. If you work in groups a lot, assign one person per meeting to lead a 3-5 minute movement activity.
- Stand up or move around as much as possible during the day. There is new evidence that breaks in sedentary time are very important for health. We also have some fun videos that can also be used as breaks during classes.
- Use technology to “gamify” your activity. For example, buy a pedometer and try to take a few extra steps each day. If you like competition and support, invite others to join you with the goal of getting more movement time or distance. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, you can also use an online mapping program or smartphone apps that use GPS to show you how far you’ve traveled. You could even start mapping your routes and try to get creative about the art you can create.
Any tips for staying motivated for physical activity, especially on cold, gray days like the ones we’ve had lately?
It’s important to stay active while also staying positive and eliminating self-criticism. You may not be able to get as much activity as you think you need to, but everything helps. It is also important to maintain consistent sleep patterns even if it is very dark and gloomy. Without the sun, you can still be active outdoors and still get the benefits of moving in nature.
Natural light is really important regardless of sunlight. If you really don’t like the idea of layering up and going outside, now is a great time to try the virtual fitness classes that are available more than ever.
There are many workouts freely available online and on social media, including U of T’s three-minute motion break videos and Sport & Rec’s virtual workout library.
About this exercise and mental health research news
Author: Jelena Damjanovic
Font: University of Toronto
Contact: Jelena Damjanovic – University of Toronto
Picture: The image is in the public domain.
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