Making movement part of your mental wellbeing toolkit.

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It was mental health awareness week last week (10th -16th May) and as there has been significant indications that exercise can be a great tool to help encourage mental wellbeing, we wanted to explore this topic a little more.  We need to be kind to ourselves and whilst I know many of my clients strive to build and improve on their fitness, we also need to recognise that if through our training we are not seeing the results or progression we are looking for, it can also add to our stress and anxiety levels.    

Figures, based on the ONS’s Opinions and Lifestyle survey, show that between January and March 2021, during the second lockdown 21% of adults experienced some form of depression, an increase from 19% in November 2020 and more than double the figure observed before the pandemic.

Where does giving ourselves room and space to achieve our goals cross over in to making excuses and not training to progress? In my blog today I wanted to ask you some questions, so that we can take some time to reflect on – Where we are right now?  Where we want to be? And how can movement be a part of our mental wellbeing tool kit?

Taking a few minutes to ask ourselves “Are our exercise goals and targets realistic?”  or “Are they causing us additional stress?” Progressive and targeted workouts are great for building strength and fitness, but how do we develop without getting fanatical about meeting our goals.

Firstly, what are your training goals for your workouts?

Are they functional goals like being able to climb the stairs without getting out of breath? Are they targeted weight-lifting goals? Are they connected to weight loss? Or can we make them about just feeling better and more positive?

Many people workout without a specific goal in mind, other than to feel stronger and fitter – which is great.  Over a long timeframe fitting in workouts fairly consistently leads to the feeling of being more able to go through life without injuries and being more capable of the odd hike here and there. When we have a goal like this, we tend not to worry about the odd missed workout and we think about the bigger picture of being functionally fit for life, prioritising our mental wellbeing.

In a world where many of us have to work toward targets at work, where we celebrate achievement or improvements and where failure is frowned upon, it’s easy for this ethos to spill out into our day-to-day lives. For example, if someone is on a weight loss journey, we congratulate them on their progress and commiserate with them if they haven’t achieved their weight loss that week. The spill over is that we start to set goals in the rest of our lives including our fitness journey. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can also be another thing to beat ourselves up about.

Making allowances for life taking over or for resting can get muddled with making excuses.  This can cause us to sometimes beat ourselves up for being lazy, but it can also cause us to push on with a goal or target when our body is sending us lots of signals that we should actually rest. This pushing on can contribute to more stress and lead to injury and illness.

As a personal trainer I frequently see and hear this happening a lot. When I know my clients are going through a tough time sometimes gentle movement is what they need the most, so I adapt sessions as I chat through with them how they are on that day or week.  

I have a couple of clients with particularly pressure filled day jobs and when I turn up (online or in person) to train them I can tell that a really tough session isn’t going to work for them. Stress in the body is cumulative and adding in a demanding session on to a tough day will leave them feeling exhausted and burnt out, rather than energised and full of endorphins. So, I take down the intensity and focus more on mobility style movements and breathing with the movement than heavy powerful repetitions. See below for a few examples.

My second question to you is – Is your time frame realistic?

I’m asking you to reflect on this as we can often find that progress is not linear, we don’t make the same increase in performance week in week out. It’s not uncommon for us to take one step forward and then two steps back. Do your goals and time frames account for this? Wanting to run your next 10K 5-minutes faster when it is only 8 weeks away, for example is a big ask and can lead to overtraining and injury.

I’ve heard over and over again from friends or clients that are trying to lose weight, that they are disheartened when they have a couple of weeks of staying the same weight or even gain back a bit. When this happens, I try to ask them why it is that weight loss is their main goal? What is driving this goal?  Is it being fuelled by diet culture and are they realistic? To read more about this see my blog ‘ | Body Confidence and Health at Every Size

Increasing the amount of repetitions, weights lifted, or time spent exercising week in week out is really unrealistic in the long term. Build in time off in your training plan for when life takes over, that gives us space and permission to progress but at a much more realistic pace.

My third question for you today is – What happens if I don’t achieve that goal in that way.

Often the answer will be . . . nothing.  Can you keep your workout plans and goals flexible?  Be kind to yourself and build in time for breaks and keep your goals realistic.  Can you make them more about how you want to feel at the end of them rather than the goal you achieve? This change in focus can give us space for movement to be much more of a tool for our mental wellbeing.

Movements as part of your mental wellbeing tool kit

The focus of the mental health awareness week this month is nature, which is another great tool to help mental wellbeing.  Could you move one of your workouts outside? 

Can you do a walk or a workout outside and make an effort to notice nature while doing it. I have a couple of walking routes past gardens that are full of colour at this time of year and into the summer.

My version of a bootcamp is my Fitness in the Forest classes that I teach in the park surrounded by trees. Exercising in a small friendly group while being out in nature really boosts your mood. Even the weather changing makes us feel part of some bigger and adds to the benefits of being outside.

When I run on my own, I sometimes entertain myself by counting the number of cats, dogs and other animals I see while I’m out. Is a more therapeutic approach to fitness and all focused on being outside in nature for an hour or two a week.  To read more about the benefits of being out in nature check out the short video on the mental health foundations site or follow the hashtag #Connectwithnature on social media.

Try these movements as part of your mental wellbeing toolkit.

  1. Shoulder mobility – Rolls forward and backward, shrugs up and down, protraction and retraction movements help to loosen off tension. These movements help us to start to connect to our bodies and to the moment.
  2. T mobility – Start with feet hip width apart, bring one foot to an external rotation and then move that same foot around to make the top of a T on top of the static foot move from this to the external rotation for several minutes. Option to add in a toe tap with one hand in the T position. Repeat on the other side.
  3. Squat to reach flow – Start with a wider than hip width stance and a comfortable foot position, reach your arms to the sky in a prayer position and then come through to the squat deeply so that your elbows draw inside your knees. Bring your hands to the floor and then start to straighten your legs let your head drop and roll one bit at a time back up to standing tall.
  4. Cat and cow – Kneeling on all fours arch the back, like a cat and then hollow the back out to stretch the back the other way.

And of course if I can help you to get your exercise started either through our Fitness in the Forrest classes or 1:1 please do get in touch.

Sara McDonnell

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