Tis the season to be jolly…jolly busy! Deadlines, shopping, crowds, family, finances, holidays…for many, the list goes on. So don’t worry – I don’t intend on making you feel guilty for not prioritising exercise during the silly season.
I was feeling particularly flat recently, thinking through the above scenarios to instigate a survival plan. A niggling cold and some seasonal allergy had tipped my physical and mental states to the brink. Trying to balance the ‘should-do’s’ with the ‘have-to’s’ is hard at the best of times, and the unfulfilled training plan adds insult to injury. I succumbed to the ongoing internal battle between the logical part of my mind that says there’s no time, and the educated part of my mind that knows the benefits of exercise (and no – these two areas should not be separate!), and dragged my weary legs down the street in what could only be described as a plod. Gradually, as I achieved some momentum, a funny thing happened: with the increase in intensity came a decrease in my consciousness surrounding the stressors that were weighing me down.
It is not the first time that I’ve experienced this phenomenon, however I find it an understated fact about exercise. As well as being good for health, necessary for weight management and an important part of rehabilitation, exercise can actually make you feel better! Clinical research is drawing the link between exercise and it’s positive effects on mental state – both acutely and chronically. Studies have shown that anxious people respond well to distraction, and that the distraction provided through exercise has a longer lasting effect than many commonly practised therapeutic activities for easing tension of the mind. Acutely, exercise decreases the drive of overactive muscle spindles, reducing muscle tension. It increases seratonin and norepinephrine (‘happy hormones’), and ramps up other aspects of the sympathetic nervous system via an alternate pathway to what worrying does. The acute neuro-physiological response brings about an internal calm and ‘can-do’ response to impending situations. Chronically, exercise generates and reinforces new neural pathways by hijacking the amygdala (the processing centre in the brain for memory and emotional response) and steering it’s response in a positive psycho-physiological direction.
Dr. John Ratey has written a great book named ‘Spark’, in which he describes exercise as being a circuit breaker to your situation. The complex series of internal reactions that are ‘wired’ into our cerebral response to worrying situations can be altered, simply by moving our bodies with a little bit of vigour. Though logically there’s no time for exercise at this time of year, the research presented in Spark suggests that if you distract the ‘worry’ response with physical activity, you will generate more space to deal with that which makes you worry in the first place. So the moral for this festive season, or for any season really, is that movement is effective medicine for the cares that bring you down and should be enjoyed in greater moderation.