LightHearts UK Mental Wellbeing - Week 9
by Liz Axham & Kat Jezzard-Puyraud
This week we’re going to be concentrating on how physical movement can help our mental health. (We can hear the groans rising but please don’t skip out on this chapter - we’re going to show you some tricks that could change your mental health and your life forever. Honest.)
If you’re anything like us then exercise is a bit of a sticking point. We know it’s good for us, we know it has so many benefits both physical and mental but when it comes down to the actual getting down to doing it, there have been times when we really can’t be arsed. Many people who have mental health issues have blocks when it comes to exercise, so if you do you’re not alone.
There are many reasons for this. Exercise requires effort but when you’re feeling so anxious you can’t concentrate, or so fatigued with depression you can't imagine moving a muscle, then the very thought of exercise is a complete turn-off.
There are also emotional issues around exercise. If you were the fat kid in school who got laughed at in gym class or if you were the kid that never got picked for the team (both hands up for us!), then you’re going to associate exercise and sport with humiliation and rejection. If you’ve ever injured yourself badly while exercising then you’re going to associate it with pain. If you suffer from an eating disorder then you’re going to associate exercise with criticism and unrealistic ideas of perfection. If you had a parent or sibling who was good at sport but you weren’t able to achieve the same level of skill, then you’re going to associate it with pressure and failure.
So there’s no coincidence that the majority of people who suffer with mental health problems also suffer with physical health problems, weight issues and especially with obesity.
It’s a bit of a vicious circle because when we’re not feeling ourselves, we just want to crawl into a ball on the sofa and cover ourselves with a fleecy blanket and wish the world would bugger off. When we feel either emotionally drained with low mood or emotionally charged with stress and anxiety, then there is no energy left in our tanks to contemplate doing anything physical. All our focus has to go on just trying to survive and get through the day without going completely bonkers in the supermarket and shoving a full trolley into a display of men’s socks before running home to bed. (One of us did that once. You have to guess which one.) But by being sedentary and hiding ourselves away in our homes, we are stopping ourselves from using one of the most accessible tools to change our mental health for good – physical activity.
Exercise is incredibly emotive and very hard for many people with anxiety or low mood. So how can we deal with this? And how can we turn it round so that poor physical health doesn’t exacerbate the damage to our mental health, and how do we use physical exercise as potentially a way we can help our peace of mind?
Here comes the science bit...
Exercise provokes some serious hormonal and neurological changes to go on in our bodies, which has a direct effect on our minds.
People with low mood and depression often have low dopamine and serotonin levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that drives us to seek out pleasure. That’s why when we feel depressed, nothing seems to give us joy. Serotonin can affect mood and social behaviour, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, sexual desire and function. So if our serotonin levels are low we experience low mood, fluctuating appetites, bad sleep and loss of libido as well as problems interacting socially. It’s not just our thoughts that are provoking this, it’s the actual chemicals in our brain. So whenever someone says “It’s all in your mind”, they’re only partially correct. Being able to change negative thinking patterns certainly helps, but if the chemicals in our brains are not acting as they should, then we have another battle on our hands. But there is a solution.
As reported in the New Scientist (October 2016) studies have shown that the mental exhaustion that accompanies depression can lead to very real physical fatigue. But one way that scientists have found to help get levels of dopamine and serotonin up and to combat that physical fatigue is by exercise, even if it means having to push through that initial tired feeling. Because once you’ve started exercising the levels of dopamine and serotonin begin to rise in the areas of the brain that are linked to motivation and alertness. And very soon you start to feel better in so many ways.
When you exercise, there are also other hormones that are released – endorphins. These are similar to analgesics (ie pain killers) so when your body becomes flooded with this hormone, any pain or discomfort you feel can begin to lessen. They also act as sedatives so you feel less stressed and calmer.
For more information on how exercise affects our mental health take a look here at the fantastic article by the Royal College of Psychiatrists: http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/treatmentswellbeing/physicalactivity.aspx
But let's set your minds at ease first. We’re not going to insist you start some boot-camp style of exercise regime in order to force any of these chemical changes in your brain. Just as we’ve advised with healthy eating, it’s about taking it slow and steady and just making small changes to your life. There’s a really good reason for not going all gung-ho about exercising, as we’ll explain below.
Image versus Reality
We are constantly bombarded with images of healthy, smiling, lean and beautiful people in magazine adverts and TV commercials who show us a life full of joy and romance if only we buy watches with fitness apps, or eat certain cereals or drink certain smoothies. These specimens of health gambol up mountains like mountain goats and burst through the finish lines in marathons and get held up on the shoulders of cheering crowds.
And all of it is total and utter bull.
Because all these images are doing is making people (like us) feel that if we don’t push ourselves physically to the limit then happiness will never be within our reach. But these adverts are just some ad exec’s dream of what happiness is. It’s not reality.
In the past both of us have signed up at gyms and both of us have thought that unless we go three times a week every week, then we are failures that have no willpower and don’t deserve happiness. And guess what happened? Within a month we’d dropped out.
Every New Year we would plot an exercise regime that we’d aim to keep to no matter what. This included swimming every week, doing a Pilates video at home, attending a spinning class, waking up early and doing a full hour of yoga before work. And guess what happened? That’s right, by February we’d stopped doing all of the above.
It’s nothing to do with willpower. It’s nothing to do with stamina. It’s to do with realistic expectations. If you set yourself unrealistic goals, you’re just setting yourself up to fail. If you’re dealing with mental health issues and you have to face the fact that you’ve failed again, then that’s like getting your own fist and punching yourself in the face like John Cleese does in Faulty Towers.
Thinking that you’re a failure does not help anyone who suffers with self-esteem issues. So let’s not do it to ourselves any more. Let’s not set these crazy, impossible goals where we exercise like demons and eat like birds. We are human beings with muffin tops bulging above our jeans and cellulite pitting our thighs and fat backs that squish out from our vests and thick ankles that cause big sock marks and arms full of loose fat that wibble-wobble when we wave. And we are beautiful, to quote a phrase from Bridget Jones, “just the way we are.”
So that’s why, we hit on an exercise regime that actually works.
Kat & Liz’s Mental Fixit for Exercise:
Drum roll please…..this is what the miracle regime is:
Morning: One walk. (15 minutes)
Evening: Some gentle stretches on the floor while watching TV (15 minutes.)
Yes guys. That’s all you have to do to change your life. You don’t have to buy any fancy equipment or clothing. You don’t have to pay any gym or class membership. You don’t even have to buy a DVD. This is all it takes to introduce some exercise into your life. And once you start this regime, you’ll find that suddenly life starts to get better in multiple ways:
- Your muscles are less tense
- You get a good dose of daylight which gives you Vitamin D (stops SAD syndrome)
- You sleep better – for longer and get better quality sleep
- You stop feeling fatigued
- Your mood begins to lighten due to the change in dopamine and serotonin levels
- You become more flexible and your joints feel less painful
- You begin to lose weight
- You meet the same people on your walk – you smile, say hello, maybe even chat
- You notice the beauty of nature
- Your breathing is more regulated due to the stretching routine
- You feel calmer
- You are less stressed
- You cope with difficult situations better
- You never miss your fave TV programme
Once you’ve conquered the 15 minute routine, you might want to elongate it if you have the time or if you’re feeling fit enough. But you don’t have to - as long as you get 15 minutes of walking and 15 minutes of stretching, you’re going to feel the benefit.
When you’re on your walk, try not to see it as a chore. Liz gets her walking session done because she has a dog. If you don’t have a dog but would like a bit of company, then ask to walk a neighbour’s dog. Or why not combine your walk with a bit of social activity by inviting a friend? Or if you prefer to be alone, you can put on your headphones and play your happy playlist or listen to an informative podcast. Try and incorporate it into your daily routine so that you look forward to it. If you know you have to go to the shops every day, then walk there instead of taking the car. Get off the train or bus early and walk the rest of the way to work.Always remember that you’re not doing this exercise to look good, you’re doing it to FEEL good. You’re doing it for your mental health.
With regards to the stretching exercises, we have a few pointers to give to you. The lovely people at Movement for Modern Life have very kindly donated the video below to show you a few easy yoga exercises. (Find out more about them on our CREDITS PAGE, which comes with a special present!) But don’t start panicking that we’re going to make you stand on your head and wrap your legs round your neck. These are GENTLE exercises for beginners. (We also have some seated yoga poses in the ‘Week Ahead’ section at the end if you’d prefer).
Yoga has been scientifically proven to help with physical health, especially back, shoulder and neck problems. As a massage therapist, Kat only recommends walking, yoga and swimming. She’s seen enough people come into her clinic with sports and gym related injuries and has found that swimming, walking and yoga are the only safe options of exercise. But as well as that advantage, medical studies have shown that yoga reduces stress and helps relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia. Yoga is brilliant for mental health because it incorporates breathing techniques (like the Ujjayi breathing technique from Week 2) and the slow, steady rhythm encourages relaxation and calm.
So watch the video below (just watch it first before you do it to gauge whether you'll be up to the poses) and then pick and choose the stretches that work for you and incorporate them into a routine for yourself. You don’t have to do the whole thing every day (again don’t set yourself up to fail.) It's only 12 minutes long so it's a great one to fit into your day. Just make sure you don’t overstretch or hurt yourself. The whole idea is to give your body a gentle stretch to get rid of all the tension in your mind and body.
Disclaimer: If you have any physical problems currently being treated by your doctor, or if you are not used to exercise, then be sure to check with your doctor first before you do any new exercise routines. We don't want any cricked necks and twisted spines, ok? If you feel pain whilst doing any of the exercises, stop immediately. And if the pain continues, see your doctor straight away. You don't have to have a yoga mat, but just make sure you have a good grip on the surface you'll be practising on so you don't slip. We can't take any responsibility for any injuries you might get, so make sure you are careful and don't push yourself.
So once you’ve familiarised yourself with the routine and worked out what postures are good for you, you can do it while watching the TV in the evening. Both of us use this method because if we’re watching TV then it doesn’t feel like a task where you have to clear the living room of furniture and family and concentrate. It’s just doing something lovely for yourself while you’re being entertained. And the wonderful thing is, if you have any family with you, they get motivated to try a few stretches themselves.
Walk Like a Monk
Meditating while walking is one of the methods used by Buddhist monks. Once you’ve got into the routine of having a walk every day - or as often as you can do it - why not give the walking meditation a try? (Wearing bright orange robes and shaving your head is optional).
This how the Buddha himself described the benefits of walking meditations: “One is fit for long journeys. One is fit for striving. One has little disease. That which is eaten, drunk, chewed, tasted, goes through proper digestion. The composure attained by walking up & down is long-lasting.”
So in layman's terms, walking meditation keeps us fit, keeps our immune systems in peak condition to ward of disease and helps our digestive systems. It also helps the body and mind to become calm and to recover from any tension.
When we do a walking meditation, we are completely focused. Some people find it a lot easier to do walking meditations as opposed to sitting meditations because by watching the road ahead and making sure we don’t trip over, we can also focus on the environment around us instead of looking inwards. In that way we become aware of our bodies instead of obsessing with what’s going on in our minds.
So here’s the little routine to get you started. You might want to carry the routine in written form in your pocket to prompt you but soon you’ll be able to remember it for yourself as it become second nature:
Kat's Mental Fixit - Walking Meditations
Just stand on the spot for a moment. Make sure your posture is good - your shoulders are back and down and your neck is elongated. But don’t exaggerate this posture by stretching too much. Just let your body find its own straight posture. Feel your feet connecting with the ground. Find your natural balance while taking a few big deep breaths.
Start walking in slighter slower than average walking pace. Don’t change the way you walk, just notice how you walk. Don’t get too self-conscious. The idea is just to become aware of walking (instead of rushing along automatically without realising what’s happening.)
Now focus on different parts of your body as you walk. What happens to your feet – how hard do your heels hit the ground? How do your ankles work when you’re walking? How do your knees and hips feel as you stride forward? What happens to your arms? Do you swing them back and forth? How high do they go? Now try and think about relaxing every part of your body as you walk. Even the bits that don’t move. Make a conscious effort to soften and relax your joints and muscles. Think about what your face is doing. If it’s frowning, try and soften it into a smile. (You don’t want to look like a crazy grumpy stomping thing.) Soften the focus of your eyes so you’re not looking directly at anything. You’re just concentrating on the road ahead of you.
Notice the rhythm of your breath. See if you can synchronise it to a number of steps. Try and make sure you have more steps during the exhale (For instance, breathing in while walking for four steps, and then breathing out while walking for six steps. As we mentioned in the previous weeks, having an elongated out-breath triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to relax).
Become aware of your feelings about your walking. Are you feeling tense or relaxed? How do you feel about your body? Are you experiencing any pain or discomfort? Or are you experiencing pleasant feelings? Now think about your emotions. Do you feel unhappy? Bored? Calm? Content? Is your mind drifting to other things? Are you mentally making a to-do list for the rest of your day? Whatever you’re feeling just acknowledge the emotion or the thought and then let it drift off. Just say mentally to yourself “I deal with that later” and just go back to the present moment and the sensation of walking.
If you notice anything pleasant on your walk – a pretty flower, a cute dog, a spider’s web – whatever it is, just acknowledge it and then move on past. If there’s anything particularly unpleasant – like an argument on the street, or pollution or dog poop – again just acknowledge it and move on past. This practice is about being aware of your environment but not allowing yourself to become too caught up in it. (As in life, we always seem to get carried away with things, especially bad things, but in this practice it shows you how to observe things without getting drawn in.) Keep your focus on your walking.
When you’ve come to the end of your circuit, start by slowing down and then eventually come to a slow stop. Stand still for a moment and just notice how you feel. Are you out of breath? How does your body feel? How does your mind feel? Do you feel more relaxed? Just feel your feet connect with the earth again, feeling solid and balanced. Then bring the practice to a close by just giving a little silent ‘thank you’ to your body for the effort it’s taken during the walk.
Kat has also prepared a visualisation meditation for you which uses this idea of walking meditation and all the benefits and focus it brings. Give it a go – perhaps try and bring in some of your own experiences of the real walking meditation practice to your visualisations too.
If you’re during a routine walk (ie you’re not doing the walking meditation practice) you can really try and notice every bit of nature that you come across. You could bring even more to your walks by taking out some books at the library about flowers, birds, insects or fungus. Use your walks as a kind of nature trail. Remember how you felt when you were a kid, coming across bugs and stones and flowers. Try and bring back some of that wonder you felt as a child when you came across the natural world. Collect a few things along your way.
Kat’s Mental Fixit for Walking:
“I always keep a look out for unusual pebbles when I go out walking. When I’m concentrating on the path ahead and looking for stones, it takes my mind off my thoughts. I like collecting smooth stones so that when I take them home I use them when I meditate. I hold the pebble between my fingers and the smoothness of it helps to take my mind off my thoughts and instead onto the smooth sensation of the pebble between my fingers. (I'm going to have to be a bit more discerning when it comes to collecting though, because my house will soon turn into the Crazy House of Stones.)”
Trees are also a wonderful thing to look at when you go on your walking meditation. And in keeping with that theme we’ve got a lovely meditation for you to try called the Tree Root meditation. Give it a go and just be aware of how you feel after doing the meditation. If you want to you can write about it in your journal while the feeling is still fresh.
The Week Ahead
1. Have a go at doing the exercise regime every day. Write in your diary about how you’re coping with it. How does your body feel? How does your mind feel? Are you noticing any changes yet?
2. How are you coping without social media (our advice from Week 8)? Are you managing without it? Or have you gone back on it? If you haven't been able to resist it, just try and cut down your use of it. Give it a really concerted effort. If you find your finger itching to get back on it, try writing in your diary instead. Distract yourself - do one of the meditations or breathing techniques - and see how your life can become better and richer when your face isn't pressed to a screen all day.
3. Take a look at this fantastic website all about walking for your health – to improve both your physical and mental health https://www.walkingforhealth.org.uk/
4. Lots of GP surgeries across the country prescribe exercise as a treatment for a range of conditions, including depression. So ask your GP about the possibility of being prescribed exercise. Here’s the website to help get you started: http://prescription4exercise.com/patientpublic/choosing-the-right-activity/
5. Copy out the titles of the walking meditation practice and put it in your pocket when you go out for a walk. Try doing the walking meditation practice. How do you get on with it? Write about what thoughts and emotions come up during this practice.
6. As well as the Movement for Modern Life yoga session, have a try of some of these gentle seated Yoga poses to help you let go of tension:
7. If you haven't already done so, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter here, remembering to add firstname.lastname@example.org to your contact list so we don't end up in your junk mail. The sign up is not obligatory and is not used for business or sales purposes. It's purely so we can share new research into mental wellbeing. We won't bombard you with emails or share your details with any third parties.
Don't be daunted this week about giving exercise a go. Don't over-do it. Just build yourself up little by little and see how you feel mentally after doing some exercise - we're betting you'll be feeling a million times better by the end of this week (and hopefully sleeping better too!) As ever, we send all our best wishes and good luck for your penultimate week....
Kat & Liz x