Brain-Boosting Exercise

Exercise 101:  It builds muscle, and increases fitness, and can make life a little easier – and not just physically!

It’s well known that exercise and physical activity helps you maintain good physical health. Did you know that exercise is good for your mental health too? Maybe you’ve heard that it’s a primary treatment recommendation for depression, or heard a friend describe getting a mental boost from a workout. Maybe you’ve had the really strong “I FEEL GREAT” feelings after you’re done. But where does that boost come from?

exercise fun

While these “feel-good” feelings are stimulated by exercise, their actual source is in the brain itself. During times of stress, which is how the body perceives exercise, the brain releases endorphins, a type of hormone that we commonly associated with a rush of euphoria. These hormones help block any pain signals that the stress might be causing, as a preventative measure of sorts.

They also make you feel damn good. As above, endorphins create feelings of euphoria – they are chemically similar to morphine! – and can increase positive thoughts and feelings. The “endorphin effect” can be both immediate and (with regular exercise) long-lasting. My first-hand experience with post-workout elation and exhilaration has made me a strong supporter of exercise as a useful element of treatment for depression and anxiety, both of which have popped up in my life. And there’s growing support that exercise can play a role in treatment and prevention of other mental illnesses, including helping to manage physical health challenges that can sometimes occur alongside.

It’s not just about feeling good, though. Long-term mental health can also get a boost from exercise. During times of stress, the brain releases another biochemical protein: brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein protects brain cells and their connections with each other, called synapses, which in turn helps improve brain cell signaling and can reverse cell damage. Improved connections between brain circuits mean improved memory, attention span, and processing speed. In some studies, increased levels of BDNF have actually been shown to have a reparative effect, and may eventually help us restore learning abilities and memory. Even low-key or modest levels of exercise, like going for a walk every day, have been show to produce BDNF-related improvements.

Neurons

The protective effects of BDNF extend throughout life. Many studies of brain health in older adults have shown that people who were more physically active earlier in life were less likely to develop degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. In the early stages of these diseases, people can also benefit from exercise: the aforementioned walk can help prevent disease progression. We tend to produce less BDNF as we age. Given the benefits, it makes sense to get moving regardless of current age or mental health.

Biochemicals aside, exercise actually benefits the brain in some of the same ways that it benefits the rest of our body. The blood vessels in our brains are very small, but still susceptible to the same types of damage as any of our other blood vessels. A stroke is one of the most common types of cardiovascular disease, and is the brain equivalent of a heart attack. While large strokes are usually quickly noticeable, small ones may occur without your knowledge. Tiny blockages leading to potentially unnoticeable mini-strokes can damage small areas of the brain and may lead to long-term mental health decline. You can vastly decrease your risks though: Your brain’s blood vessels are positively affected by exercise – the same way as the rest of your blood vessels throughout your body. Good blood vessel health (also called vascular health) also means optimal blood flow to the brain, and with it, optimal delivery of nutrients and oxygen. Sounds like a good idea to keep those channels open!


Deep Breathing For Better Energy

How often do you feel exhausted, sluggish, weary or worn out?

People frequently feel like they don’t have enough energy for the things they have to do, let alone for the things that they want to do! In fact, about 20% of the population reports feeling fatigue that lasts for a month or more.

It’s probably no surprise that there are strong associations between high levels of fatigue, low levels of energy, and a number of physical and mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, and diabetes. Even if you are otherwise healthy, low energy levels and high fatigue can be a huge drain on your quality of life. We’d all like to get home from work and still have the energy to connect with family, walk the dog, or spend some time on hobbies.

Numerous activities can increase or decrease energy levels. Think of how you feel after a poor night’s sleep or hours of work on a presentation, or the effect of a short walk or powernap. Hundreds of scientific studies have found that mind-body interventions, including yoga practices, are effective in treating stress-related mental and physical disorders. The calming effects are attributed, in part, to the emphasis on controlled breathing, which can lead to neurological, and biochemical changes that impact our feelings of stress and energy.

Admittedly, working to create calm might not seem like a great way to create energy. But science has shown that the relationship between breath and emotions is a two-way street. Stress levels can change your breathing patterns, but the way you breathe will actually significantly influence your stress levels. Deliberate deep breathing creates a physical effect that is the opposite of the famous “fight or flight” response. It can decrease heart rate and blood pressure, enhance immune function, and increase stress tolerance. The combined physical effects of deep breathing and attention on the breath can lead to sharpened focus and clearer thinking. After even just a minute or two of deep breathing, many people report feeling both calmer and more energized.

Here’s how to do it: Find somewhere where you can sit comfortably and not be disturbed for at least a couple of minutes. Focus on taking slow, deep breaths, expanding your rib cage from top to bottom and side to side as you breathe in. Aim to slowly inhale for five seconds, and slowly exhale for five seconds, or as close to that as you comfortably can. Continue this breathing pattern for up to five minutes – though even a few breaths like this can be helpful.

 

Are you looking for more practical, easy to apply advice like this? HealthFit Coaching provides in-home health, fitness, and nutrition coaching all across Brisbane. Contact us for a free, no-obligation call and find out how we can help you.


How To Be Happy

Happiness has demonstrated health benefits, including decreased risk of heart disease and stroke, and there is scientific evidence that happiness is more than just the absence of sadness or depression. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that we have a great deal of control over our happiness levels.

Written to be your choice of a quick skim or a long read, this compilation piece from the New York Times details great ideas to get more happiness. Take your time to read through it all, or just start with a quick browse through the headings. Information from numerous studies forms the base for these practical recommendations to help improve mental health boost happiness at home and work, around money matters, in relationships, and enjoy improved overall quality of life.

Read the article How To Be Happy to find the happiness options that will work best for you!

 


More On Exercise For Stress Management

Do you remember your last big job interview or exam? How did you feel?

Ugh, stress.

Whether it comes from your job, family demands, a bank balance or an overcrowded calendar, stress is a fact of life. We’ve all experienced the impact of stress on a day, week, month – or even longer. I’m sure I’m not along in wanting to have less of it, but for better or worse, stress is actually an important part of life. A stress-causing incident (a stressor) has a quantifiable physical impact, creating changes to circulating levels of hormones that help prepare the body for fight-or-flight.

The fight or flight response can be used to your advantage. Short-term and/or moderate levels of beneficial stress (eustress) can help improve motivation, sharpen focus, and boost memory and recall – exactly what you need for big presentations or school exams. Physically, eustress can help improve physical performance and endurance; the zebra running from the lion is definitely experiencing heightened stress levels! Biochemical reactions that occur as part of the physical stress response can even dull or block pain levels in some situations. And the right amount of ongoing physical stress in the form of physical activity or exercise is actually what stimulates improved levels of strength and fitness.

Of course, too much stress can also be hard on the body. While we primarily think of stress as a mental or emotional difficulty, stress levels that are very high or remain high over an extended period of time also has a physical cost.

One of the primary stress responses is an increased release of epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and cortisol. High epinephrine levels can lead to feelings of anxiety. In the short term, this can help you get stuff done, thereby ridding yourself of some of your stressors. Over time though… You probably don’t need me to tell you that long-term anxiety isn’t healthy! Excessive cortisol and adrenaline can also have a negative impact on your immune system, making you more susceptible to minor illnesses like the common cold. Increased levels of epinephrine, cortisol, and other stress hormones can also lead to headaches, eating pattern and digestive issues, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular conditions, depression, insomnia, and fatigue. There is also growing evidence that high levels of stress and related physical responses can lead to increased cancer risks.

Stress is a pervasive problem. According to the American Psychological Association, the majority of American are living with at least moderate to high stress levels, and a 2014 study by the Australian Psychological Society found that about one in four Australians are living with distress.

Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, exercise can help. Isolation or avoidance are two common reactions to high stress levels. (I know that when I’m stressed, I want to get away from everyone and everything until I can get a handle on things.)  These reactions aren’t particularly helpful, but getting moving is!

Almost every type of exercise has been shown by decades of research to decrease short and long-term stress levels. Even if you’re not feeling it, going through the motions can be a distraction from your stressors, and can help decrease muscle tension and cortisol release. In turn, this can lead to decreased feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger, as well as physical changes like decreased heart rate and blood pressure. It’s possible that the amount of exercise you do can impact how significant these effects are. Some studies have shown more exercise leads to greater stress reductions, while others have shown that neither the amount, frequency, or intensity change how much stress is decreased. So walking the dog may be just as beneficial as a tough run or weights session.

The take-home message: It’s not worth getting stressed about how much, how hard, or how often you get moving – just get going! Any sort of movement will serve as the above mentioned distraction, and boost positive feelings of well-being. Take a moment and consider what kind of movement, physical activity, or exercise makes you feel better. It doesn’t have to be gym-based, or any sort of organized sport, just something that you enjoy at least a little!


Walking along coronation drive in Brisbane

Stress-Busting Moves: Exercise for Stress Management

I was chatting with a client yesterday who mentioned that she might not get another session in before the new year. She’s been working hard for the last several months, and has had a significant mindset change – regular low-intensity work outs, a shift in eating habits, managing her stress levels like a pro, and with a great plan for keeping up with health choices while out of routine.  I think a couple of months “on her own” will be a great way to figure out what’s left to work on – if anything!

Not all of us are headed into the holiday season quite so prepared though. No matter how much you love the holiday season, it can be a stressful time. Family is great – but not always. Holiday foods are delicious – but easy to go overboard with. Add that to a disrupted routine and a bunch of extra chores/jobs/travel to juggle and stress levels can skyrocket.

Researchers have looked at stress management and a wide variety of exercise types, intensities, and frequencies  – what you do, how hard you work, and how often you do it. The results are pretty awesome: it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something. Exercise has a significant positive impact on mental, emotional, and physical stress and health. So pick one of these stress-reducing workouts (the one that sounds most appealing) and give it a try. You’ll feel better, brush off the stress more easily, and maybe even look forward to the holidays a little more!

Cardiovascular Exercisewalking the dog

Walk, jog, run. Ride your bike, paddle your kayak, jump on your unicycle. Take the dog out for a cruise around the block. Steady, rhythmic movements are the hallmark of cardio work.

The stress-busting benefits of cardiovascular work come when you get your heart rate up. But that doesn’t mean you have to break a sweat! Even a small increase, like one you would get with going for a walk, is easily enough. Aim for a minimum of 10 minutes, but go for a little longer if you want greater benefit. This can be any combination of slow, steady work or interval training. No matter your current fitness, this can be an option for everyone!

Strength Training

Same heart rate rules apply with strength training. This is essentially interval training, with periods of harder work alternating with easier work or rest (assuming the weights you’re lifting are a bit challenging). Find a heavy thing. Pick it up. Put it down. Repeat, then rest. Choosing exercises that use multiple joints give you a little more bang-for-buck, but anything works. Plus, feeling strong is an awesome feeling!

yogaYoga/Tai Chi/Pilates

People jump in here to tell you that these types of exercise are different. It’s true that they are different in their methods and approaches, but they are all movement. These types of exercise are often slow and deliberate, with an emphasis on breathing and a mindful approach to how you’re using your body. (This is a really powerful way to build body awareness, which is a great tool to managing your own health.) The mindfulness of these movements is one of the greatest benefits. Focusing on your breath and movement keep you from thinking about any other stressful things. It’s a zero-sum game and I like it!

Stretching

Done correctly, stretching should be mildly uncomfortable, enough so that holding feels fairly intense (without being so horrible that you want to quit). If you want a stress-busting stretch, stretch your muscle until you feel that comfortable-but-challenging stretch, and breathe deeply and slowly with an aim to relax that muscle. You’ll feel the stretch melt away, and might even be surprised by breaking a sweat. Please remember though: there is such a thing as too much stretch! Aim for a maximum intensity of 6-7 out of 10 to keep your muscles lengthening without damage.

For stress management, you can do as much or little exercise as you like. Even a minute of two of taking time our for a quick stretch or a walk down the block can help clear your head and drop your blood pressure. This list is certainly not exhaustive though. What are your favorite stress-relieving moves? I’d love it hear it!


Small Win Saturday: I’m A Quitter!

Small wins are the little things that give us a (big) boost, and lots of small wins add up to big changes and powerful breakthroughs. Small Win Saturdays are where we share a tiny-but-awesome thing that happened to a HealthFitter or a HealthFit coach in the last week. Try it out for your a mental or physical boost, or share own your small win in the comments!

I Quit My Gym Membership!

Waaaait a minute. Isn’t HealthFit supposed to be about more movement, not less? Well, yes. But we’re also all about stress management. Paying for a gym membership that I wasn’t using was making me feel guilty as heck, in equal parts for spending the money on nothing, and for actually not going.  And guilt is a sure path to more stress.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot about dropping my membership for a few months now, but I felt like I shouldn’t. I felt like I should go, even though I have really been struggling to find the extra time that a gym workout would take. Keeping the membership was part of the “I’ll get there next week” lie I was telling myself. To be clear, I am still exercising, but I’m finding it way more convenient these days to sneak in a workout at home or go for a quick run than to add another half-hour of gym-commute time into an already packed day.

Once I gave some thought to where the go-to-the-gym pressure was coming from, I realized I was trying to meet some expectation that I had formed for myself: That if I didn’t do this, I was giving up on healthy and that would make me a total loser – and that’s much nicer than what my brain actually says.  As an aside, I had a great reminder from my psychologist recently: it’s mind-boggling how we speak to ourselves, and recognizing it when it happens can actually make a big difference. 

All this guilt and self-disappointment, despite the fact that I’m still practicing what I preach. I’m often slow to act on the opportunities to decrease stress in my own life, but I finally figured out that I could reframe “I should go to the gym” to “I prefer to work out at home”. I’m guilt-free (at least about this!) and have $60 bucks a month to spend on yoga classes that I will enjoy way more!

Small wins can be big wins! What was your small win this week?