The pandemic has drastically changed the fitness world. The lockdown, social distancing, and working from home have halted many people’s routines for over a year – not to mention easy access to the fridge hasn’t been friendly to many of us. This past year’s challenges are exemplified by the rise in mental health app usage. It’s clear we could all use some support in boosting our mental and emotional well-being. So what can we do?
Exercise! With many benefits, including mental health, exercise is not only about aerobic ability and muscle mass. Yes, exercise can improve physical health and appearance, enhance sexual activity, and even add years to a person’s life, but most people are not inspired to stay active because of this.
People who exercise consistently report an enormous sense of well-being, productivity at work, better quality sleep, and improved mood. Exercise helps our body release endorphins and increase serotonin levels, which are considered the “feel-good” hormones. The more we exercise, the more endorphins and serotonin our body releases.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of exercise and at least two strength-training sessions per week. This breaks down to 30 minutes per day, five times a week. But you don’t have to outdo yourself at the gym to achieve success – a little effort goes a long way.
If you’re reading this and wondering how to suddenly start exercising for 150 minutes a week, don’t worry. As the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) explains, it’s about making changes that are sustainable for the long term, which means breaking aspirations down into smaller, achievable steps to meet your goals.
Here are seven easy ways to promote mental health and reintroduce fitness into your routine without feeling overwhelmed:
1. Start small.
If the goal is 30-minute walks in the park, start with five minutes, then 10, then 15…until it becomes easier to dedicate 30 minutes. Small, incremental goals are crucial to success.
2. Engage in physical activity that makes you happy.
If exercise feels like work, we are less likely to be consistent. If going to the gym causes a sense of dread in you, don’t go! The gym isn’t the only place where you can be active. Activities such as walking a pet, riding a bike, swimming, or playing in the park are simple, yet fulfilling activities that also get your heart rate up.
3. Include friends in your daily activity.
Working out feels good when we have loved ones around us. Schedule a tennis match or a few laps around the track. Joining forces with others can be more effective than exercising alone. Plus, including friends helps with accountability. Create stronger exercise habits and strengthen your relationships by spending more quality time with loved ones – win-win!
4. Work out when you have the most energy.
This tip should be a simple one, but it’s not always. If your energy level is highest in the morning, make sure to add a quick workout session to your routine. Learning to listen to your body is key. Your energy might fluctuate from day to day as well, so tune in to see what type of activity your body needs and when you’re able to fit it in.
5. Reward yourself.
Rewarding yourself after a workout or aerobic routine allows you to feel a sense of accomplishment. A facial, bubble bath, or delicious superfood smoothie can be motivators to go the extra step. The rewards in turn benefit other areas of your life.
6. Create your own home gym experience.
In today’s age, we can stream and download virtual content to keep up with fitness routines. Even though gyms are making a comeback, people have reported keeping a hybrid format of the in-person and online models. As a result, fitness apps have pivoted to incorporate yoga, Pilates, dance, kickboxing, cycling, and strength conditioning routines, among others. Incorporating a few moments in the morning to get grounded and do a quick wellness routine on an app or website can positively impact our holistic health – not to mention, no commute required!
7. Work with a Health Coach.
A Health Coach can support you in creating a realistic fitness plan and empower you on the journey. As a coach myself, I help my clients stay accountable and provide guidance along the way.
My personal exercise experience
Before the pandemic, I went to the gym at least 3–4 times a week. When the lockdown occurred, I sheltered in place for many months. During this time, my mood started to shift, but I equated it to the current climate. In my practice, 5th & Lyfe, I coached clients weekly to continue physical movement but wasn’t practicing it myself.
I thought of every reason under the sun for why I felt this way, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I read an article about sadness during the pandemic and realized I wasn’t moving daily; even my breathing style had changed to be more shallow. My routine was out of balance and had caused a shift in my mood. I acknowledged my exercise breakdown and made it a priority to do at-home workouts through YouTube and various apps. Within a week, my mood drastically improved. I had sharper memory and thinking, higher self-esteem, and increased energy.
Exercise is not a destination but a journey that can uplift our lives in many ways. It’s best to start slow and build momentum along the way. Each step and breathing technique can help relieve stress built up over time. We are all different and built in all shapes and sizes. The key is to find what works for you. What is good for one might not work for another – there isn’t a cookie-cutter formula for harmony. As I tell my clients, everything is connected, so we should treat and nourish the mind, body, and soul as one.