3 = Stay Active
"Take care of your body. It's the only place you have to live" Jim Rohn.
To nobody’s surprise, an important way to maintain positive mental health is to take care of our physical health. So much so that an entire field of psychology, known as health psychology, investigates the relationship between psychological factors and physical health. This blog post is going to explain how to maintain positive physical health, regardless of age or disability, by touching on three specific areas: Exercise, sleep and nutrition. This is staying active. The third way of well being.
Everyone knows the importance of exercise. Exercise secretes endorphins in your brain, which are positive neurochemicals. It makes us feel good. On top of that, it causes us to take in more oxygen, increase blood flow in the body, increase body muscle and burn fat. If it’s an exciting sport, it’s also fun. Another element of regular exercise is routine. Research on routine continues to display more and more positive benefits because it is associated with discipline. Training your brain to do the stuff you don’t want to do becomes normalised over time and then conscious inconveniences become unconscious practices. So exercise is fantastic all around. But still, there are so many people who don’t exercise at all. It is no coincidence that mental health problems continue to rise but so too do levels of obesity. Therefore, a huge element is motivation. We have already spoke about this in detail in one of our earlier posts so go back and have a look if you’re interested. However, one point I will reiterate is that we need to create manageable steps to achieve goals and we need to be internally motivated rather than externally motivated. The people who go to the gym in January to get beach bod ready are rarely the ones who are still there in June. They are motivated by external factors in the form of the opinions and approvals of other. However, the sad thing is that the true opinion is that other people don’t really care about you. There is no feedback to want to improve more. On the other hand, people who are internally motivated just want to be better than they were yesterday. They want to do 2.5kgs heavier on their squat or run that extra mile. They are constantly improving and getting immediate feedback from their progress. And it is this progress that is addictive. This is where you see people flip 180 and go from couch potatoes to gym fanatics. Again, it’s fun.
So you’re reading this, nodding your head and while it all sounds good, you’re still not going to do it. And this isn’t some motivational speech. However, what we will give you are some very simple tips. What if I told you, the only thing you would have to start off with is doing 5 minutes of exercise a day? Remember now we’re not talking about becoming a fitness guru. Just enough to maintain positive mental health. That is the aim. And then once you preserve this, you've created a strong foundation to push yourself more. In our workshop, we teach children two simple things to make sure they’re remaining active. The first is our six minute brain breaks. In the middle of the school day, we advise doing five one minute exercises with 20 second breaks in between. You don’t need any equipment, it is not difficult and most importantly, it is not intimidating. This won’t give you a Sixpack and it won’t make you ready for a triathlon. However, it is ensuring you are staying active. And what’s far more essential about this is that it is teaching discipline. It is forcing people to get used to following a routine. Making conscious effort unconscious. Obviously, physical education is also in schools but there are ways that children avoid doing any exercise in these classes. By altering a discouraging one hour physical education class to a five minute workout in class, we get more children involved. We also recommend that this is done alongside simple forms of activity, such as taking stairs rather than lifts and walking or cycling rather than always taking public transport. Again, this is not going to result in a body transformation. But it is giving them the simple foundation to go one step further. And the beautiful aspect of activity is its many forms. If you don’t like sport, try dance, yoga, nature walks, gardening, hiking, the list goes on!
However, it isn’t just exercise that is important to stay active. Without the correct amount of nutrition and sleep, it is very difficult to maintain the energy to stay active. Nutrition is currently a very hot topic in medicine, psychology and neurology. Research is finding the gut to be the second brain and I read a new paper everyday finding stronger links between what we eat and how we feel. For example, Dr. David Perlmutter, who is a nutritionist and neurologist has spent his life studying the adverse effects of gluten on the brain and his findings are rather concerning. Of course, the biggest epidemic that both nutrition and psychology currently face are eating disorders. Munkholm and colleagues found that preadolescence is generally the age range where eating disorders can develop. Nutritionist Laura Thomas speaks about intuitive eating. She explains that we should always eat when we are hungry and this will prevent binges. However, we should also listen to our bodies and when we are full, we should stop eating. She also advises that we should never ban foods, particularly in the teenage years (unless it’s for physical health reasons). If we ban food such as sugars, carbs or gluten, we become obsessed with the food and this combined with adolescent neurological underdevelopment and impulsivity results in the food being eaten. Due to the food being previously banned, this creates an arena of shame and this feeling of shame along with the obsession can form the foundation of eating disorders. Of course, this does not mean you let your children eat anything they want but everything in moderation. Just don’t ban food!
We’ve always been told the importance of sleep. Insomnia or lack of sleep is one of the symptoms for several psychological disorders such as depression. One study by Wang and colleagues found that children with troubled sleep were more likely to have more attention problems and aggressive behaviours in mid-adolescence. As well as increasing the risk of psychological issues, research also shows that poor sleep quality can influence academic performance, adolescent alcohol consumption, neurological development, family function and the well being of family members. A study found that for girls, sleep quality was a better predictor than social competence for adjusting to the adolescent years, So it’s a big deal. The same factors that we have talked about before also influence sleep. For example, regular practice of mindfulness meditation has been found to improve sleep quality while stress reduces it. And there are simple changes we can make to improve our sleep quality. Firstly, something that has been publicised but not known by everyone is that the blue light that technology emits reduces sleep quality. Everyone likes to scroll their newsfeed before going to sleep but the blue light that our smart phones discharge activates melatonin in our brain, which essentially tells the brain to stay awake for longer. Our advice? Avoid technology 30 minutes before you go to bed. Replace it with a nice boring non-fiction book. On top of this, the exact time you go to sleep does not matter but research has found that it is more beneficial to go to sleep before 12AM. Remember that our ancestors didn’t have alarm clocks. Dark skies meant sleep and sunrise meant wake. Our environment has dramatically changed but our genes still have the same expectation. When we speak about sleep quality, we should all aim for REM sleep or rapid eye movement sleep. This is the sleep stage where dreams occur and the most neurological consolidation happens. It's our brain's pit stop. This means that long sleep latency, or sleep where you are still aware but kind of drowsy, is not a good form of sleep and we want to get rid of it. This is generally achieved by something that is commonly known as sleep hygiene. It involves not taking daytime naps longer than 30 minutes, avoiding caffeine close to bedtime, a regular bedtime routine, and making sure the bedtime environment is peaceful. And finally, and rather obviously, sleep duration is important. The sleep health journal states the requirements of 9 hours under the age of 11 and 8 hours over the age of 11. However, as your secondary school English teacher told you, quality over quantity.
A final note on staying active, remember that one element can’t be held to a high standard without the other. You can’t regularly exercise with no sleep or poor nutrition. Without sleep, you lose your appetite and your motivation to exercise. And with no appetite, you won’t have the energy to exercise and it will reduce your sleep quality. So find a balance. A huge study that looked at 25 different physical activity studies among children and adolescents was carried out by Lubans and other researchers. It found that physical activity resulted in improved physical self-perceptions, which came alongside enhanced self-esteem. As we are all aware, low self-esteem is one of the best predictors of mental health problems. So we have something that could prevent it. So why aren’t we doing it? Stay active!