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!


Middle age man sitting in a relaxed position

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.


stressed out man looking out window with serious expression wondering what to do

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!


How To Be Nice To Yourself

This is for you, for me, and for anyone else whose brain has them feeling guilty about their day to day choices…

One of the biggest things I see my clients struggle with is the concept that they should be doing more for themselves in order to reach a particular goal. Exercising more or harder, cutting out carbs, drinking less coffee – I hear this stuff all the time, quite often starting with “I really should…” In fact, their battles with these shoulds are a huge reason my clients seek my help in the first place.

I am intimately acquainted with the way should can rule your life. I, too, often feel like I should be working out more. Shouldn’t be eating toast for dinner when I’m too exhausted to even take the healthier leftovers out of the fridge. Should go to my yoga class because I know I’ll be so much less stressed afterward. Should go to bed so I can get some good sleep, but should also stay up to finish this blog post. (You have just seen a snapshot of my day yesterday. I went to bed.)

Does this sound much like you? I think about my day yesterday and I’m frustrated. I think about all the things I should do today, and I feel guilty because I know right now that there are simply not enough hours in the day to tick all my to-do’s off the list. Neither of these feelings are helpful.

It begs the question: Why do we make ourselves feel so bad?

I am not a psychologist, and I don’t have the answer to “why”, but I do have a great solution. At least, it’s a solution that has been very helpful for me. This is something taught to me by my psychologist, a wonderful woman who is helping me keep my brain from making me miserable.

Rather than telling yourself day in and day out that you should be doing X or Y, what happens if say you prefer to do X or Y??

Since we’re all different, I’m not sure if this is a thing that will click with you. I’ll tell you what happened for me, though, when I made that change.

I went from “I really should go running and eat something healthy for lunch” (Subtext: “If I don’t do these things, I’m ruining my life because I’m still not as fit and healthy as I would like to be and I’m going to have to work so much harder to get to that point and I don’t even have the time to do it eeeeever which is the problem in the first place…” with a rock in my stomach and my shoulders up around my ears.)

… To “I would prefer to go running this morning and eat something healthy for lunch” (Subtext: Those things sound great and enjoyable and I’m looking forward to being able to do that…” and my shoulders haven’t felt this relaxed and loose in ages. Even with the knowledge that those things might not happen.)

I lost the stress and tension surrounding the shoulds, simply by allowing myself to NOT be obligated to do them. Instead, by thinking of them as things I would like to do because I enjoy them (or their benefits), I actually look forward to doing them (and if I don’t get them done, it’s no big deal). The reality is that there are a limited number of hours in a day, and some things can’t be multitasked – hard to run and eat at the same time!

Give yourself a break. You might even find you start rocking this life business even more.


Staying Informed About Your Health Care – A How-To List

Going to the doctor or other health care practitioner can be stressful, and it’s easy to feel rushed when you’re at an appointment. It’s quite often “hurry up and wait”, and that pressure can lead us to rush through our part of the visit as well. We worry we’ll seem slow on the uptake if we don’t understand what’s being told to us, or that having questions will make us seem pushy or uncooperative.

It’s totally normal to feel this way – we’ve been brought up with the concept that doctors are busy and important, so who are we to get in the way? It’s important to remember though, that you are uniquely positioned to discuss your health with your doctor, and you have a duty to yourself to take the best care of your body that you can. After all, you’re the only one with the knowledge and experience of living your life, in your body, and how that feels. No one will care more about your life than you!

That’s not to say your doctor doesn’t care about you – they do want the best for you. But when appointment are set 10-15 minutes apart, if you don’t speak up, it can be easy for the doctor to hit the highlights of what’s happening and what they want to do about it. Unfortunately, hitting the highlights can be easy for a doctor with the background knowledge of how a healthy body works, what might be happening with yours, and what can be done to move back towards good health. Take advantage of this knowledge – you’ll find that your doctor is happy to explain things in more detail. You’ll be better informed, and will likely be able to make better choices about your healthcare for years to come. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your doctor’s appointment, though these points apply to any visit with anyone taking part in your health care, including exercise physiologists and personal trainers, chiropractors, massage therapists – you name it!

Come prepared. Whether you have a list of questions or a list of symptoms – no matter how simple, or how complicated – writing these down in the lead up to your appointment will help you make sure you don’t miss anything. This goes even if it’s just a general check-up.

Take notes at your doctor’s appointment. Your doctor went to school for YEARS to simply begin to understand what they are trying to tell you in five minutes. You probably won’t remember everything they are saying, so be a smarty-pants and write it down. Your doctor will be impressed.

Find out in detail what you can expect from a prescription or treatment. If you don’t know what to expect, how will you know if it’s working? Additionally, some treatments and prescriptions can have heavy-duty side effects, and you should be aware of what to look for.

If something doesn’t make sense to you, ask for clarification. Doctors LOVE patients who are actively engaged in their own medical care, and they’ll take more time to explain things and make sure that you understand to your own satisfaction. Don’t hesitate to ask.

Keep track of your treatments, prescriptions, supplements, and surgeries. Don’t count on your medical office to have an up-to-date list, especially if you are seeing multiple health care practitioners. Helping them stay current will help you get better care.

Pay attention to what happens when you do (or don’t) take your prescriptions, supplements, or otherwise follow doctor’s orders.
Taking (or missing) a tablet, an appointment, or a workout may or may not have an immediate effect (and I’m certainly not suggesting you experiment with skipping things you should be doing!) Sometimes we forget things though, and it’s handy to reflect on whether that makes a difference to how you’re feeling in the days after the fact.

Ask your doctor if they have additional materials that can help you understand your condition or treatment. This is especially useful if you’ve recently been diagnosed with a health condition, or have been prescribed a new treatment of some sort. People learn and retain information in a variety of ways. If your doctor can show you a video, give you a booklet with pictures and information, or otherwise find ways to help you understand what’s going on with your body, you’re likely to gain a much better understanding. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words!

Talk to the nurses! The nursing staff is a collective goldmine of experience, and can answer many of your health questions just as well as the doctor. You might have a little more time with a nurse, as well, so you might as well make the most of it.

Bring a second set of ears. If you have someone close enough to share your health information with, it can be handy to have a second set of ears to help absorb information, and they may ask some good questions that you don’t think of.

Find out how to get further information. It can be tough to get all your info in one visit, and Dr. Google is a BAD doctor. Find out who you can get in touch with, and how to do it, if you have additional questions or want more information.

Don’t be afraid to change doctors. There are pros and cons to this – in many ways, it’s great to be working with someone who is deeply familiar with your health history. But if you find that your doc is unwilling to share information, or you’re otherwise unhappy with your care, it’s worth finding someone you click with.

Don’t forget, your doctor actually works for you. Stay healthy, my friends!


Three Great Benefits Of Hiking

Want a workout you don’t have to think about? Head out for a hike!

Every time my husband and I go hiking (bushwalking in Australia), I wonder why we don’t do it more often. It’s so many things I love. Good exercise, beautiful scenery, very relaxing – just a great time with friends and family. I’m always really happy to get my exercise in a non-gym setting doing something I enjoy.

Hiking is also a kick-ass way to exercise, whether you are trying to or not. Here are three reasons why:

It’s a different way to walk.

Hiking trails are not usually smooth and level. There are rocks, roots, puddles, streams, holes in the ground, branches falling across where they shouldn’t be – all things that you have to step over and get around. This results in a change from our normal walking gait, which changes how we use our muscles. Moving in unusual directions – like when you have to step up and sideways to step over something – is a greater challenge than simply moving forward in a straight line. That results in better joint mobility, functional flexibility, and more calories burned.

Stepping up and over this stuff is a bit of a stretch!

Stepping up and over this stuff is a bit of a stretch!

It can throw some great intervals at you.

You can’t adjust the incline in nature! Hiking is great for climbing up hills, then coming back down, often with repeated ups and downs. And even if you are more or less just headed uphill, you can stop when you feel like it to catch your breath and get a drink. Just like any interval training you do at the gym, working hard for a period and then allowing your heart rate to come back down is a really effective workout.

Taking breaks on the uphills turns your hike into great interval training.

Taking breaks on the uphills turns your hike into great interval training.

Relax!

Getting out into nature and exercise that consists of repetitive movements (i.e. hiking, walking, etc.) both have been shown to decrease stress on their own. This is a result of a decreased level of stress hormones and an increased production of endorphins, biochemical that elevate your mood and work as the body’s natural painkillers. Combine them and get an even bigger bang for your buck. Plus, unlike other workouts where you’re counting reps or desperately counting the seconds until you can stop running, you get to just head out, follow the trail, and enjoy the scenery.

Made it up the hill and enjoying the view.

Made it up the hill and enjoying the view.

Need additional reasons to get outside? Getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city means cleaner air, beautiful landscapes, and friendly people. I’m always surprised at how many people will stop for a quick chat to tell you about a not-to-be-missed lookout, or give you a heads up if there’s a significant obstacle ahead. Even for an introvert like me, it can make the experience a lot more enjoyable. Want to share your favorite hike? Let us know in the comments – we’ll understand if you want to keep it a secret though!