Staying home affects your mental health. Learn how being active and exercise can help

In my previous blog I proposed five ways we can protect our mental health and well-being as our lives are put on hold and we are forced to self isolate. The "five a day" recommendations are:

1. Be active.

2. Connect.

3. Keep learning.

4. Give to others.

5. Be mindful.

I would like to invite you to play a game. For the next five days I will explore these five recommendations one by one. As I post them, see if you can dedicate your day to that specific recommendation. Are you ready for this challenge? Let's begin.

Be active.

Being forced to stay at home quickly turns into a psychological challenge. After all being deprived of our freedom of movement is a form of punishment. No wonder you feel feel restless and stressed. Aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart.  How can exercise contend with problems as difficult as anxiety and depression? There are several explanations, some chemical, others behavioral. The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the "runner's high" and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts. Behavioral factors also contribute to the emotional benefits of exercise.  You'll earn a sense of mastery and control, of pride and self-confidence. 

Almost any type of exercise will help. Many people find that using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion works best. Walking and jogging are prime examples. Even a simple 20-minute stroll can clear the mind and reduce stress. But some people prefer vigorous workouts that burn stress along with calories. Stretching exercises that help relax your muscles after a hard workout will help relax your mind as well, so try to include those as well. Remember that your exercise doesn't have to be daunting. If exercise isn't part of your day, start out with a 5-minute walk each day. Then ease into longer strolls. If walking is painful try cycling. Gardening and rearranging your garage are also ways of being active. Most importantly, put the intention of being active into what you do. 

Being active goes beyond purely exercising. It's an attitude, a frame of mind that includes being industrious, energetic, attentive. For example, we are being "active" when we do our work, do our chores and sit up straight. After all feeling tired, lack of energy, and moving or speaking  slowly can be some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety. So we want to be vigilant and make sure that we make "being active" part of our day. 

Now comes the fun part. Set yourself the goal of being active every day. To make sure you follow through with your goal, try the SMART acronym: Specific- Meaningful - Adaptive - Realistic - Time framed. So, for example, feeling more relaxed and energetic is important for me. That's the "Meaningful" part. A goal that can achieve that is being active daily for at least 20 minutes, that is a Realistic, Adaptive, Time framed goal. I can look on-line and find a Yoga workout, that is a Specific action I can take right now.

So that's it. This is the fist step of your mental wellness challenge. Next we'll see how feeling and being connected is essential to our wellbeing and what we can do to nurture that feeling.


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