summary: Even small bouts of physical activity and exercise throughout the day can help boost your mental health.
Source: University of Toronto
With Toronto experiencing a particularly bleak January, many may be wondering what they can do to boost their mental health.
One potentially important strategy is physical exercise, says Catherine Sabiston, a professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE).
“If people can engage in small bouts of physical activity throughout the day — even a minute or two at a time — and up to 10 to 20 minutes a day, that’s helpful,” she recommends.
Canada’s Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health, Sabiston directs KPE’s Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Center (MPARC). The center studies the links between physical activity and mental health, and develops and evaluates interventions to promote physical activity and mental wellness among people at risk for inactivity and mental health problems.
It also runs a six-week program called MoveU.HappyU that provides customized training and coaching aimed at reducing students’ stress and anxiety through physical movement.
Author Jelena Damjanovic recently caught up with Sabiston to talk about the benefits of movement for our bodies and minds.
It is well known that physical activity is good for the body, but there is growing evidence that physical activity is also good for the soul. Can you explain the science behind that? How does our brain reward us for moving?
There are potentially many ways in which physical activity helps our physical health as well as our mental health. Technically speaking, mental health is the real result of how our brain rewards movement.
Our brains are responsible for many of the processes that make us feel, think and act. When we are physically active, we improve these systems by increasing cellular and molecular processes – cerebral blood flow, turnover of neurotrophic factors, a series of cellular mechanisms that positively influence the functions of many areas of the brain.
When we engage in physical activity, we also increase our body temperature, and the feeling of warmth makes us feel comfortable and safe. The warmth and comfort that comes from being physically active is essential to mental health and, specifically, to taking care of ourselves.
Also, as humans we were meant to be much more active than we currently are. If you think of our ancestors, hunter-gatherers, their days were filled with movement and labor to satisfy all their needs. As we’ve become more sedentary, our brains like it when we’re actually active, and that brings us to a level of activity where we were meant to be. This is a kind of balance where our activity level matches our natural purpose as human beings.
Beyond cells and molecules, what role does our brain play in how we perceive the mental health benefits of physical activity?
Self-perception is an important indicator of mental health. By being physically active, we build a sense of mastery and confidence that not only helps us keep going, but mental health as well.
Regardless of whether we engage in physical activity with others, actual or in person, or if we are active outside and see other people in the environment, it all gives us a sense of support and community that helps us build our mental health. In fact, physical activity outside exacerbates all the positive benefits, as does exercising with a dog.
How much physical activity (per day or week) do we need to reap all these benefits?
There are all kinds of different guidelines around physical activity, and the most recent Canadian Movement Guidelines have explored mental health benefits a bit, but not to the extent that they are designed for physical health benefits.
The challenge with any guideline is that it has been developed by others and may not be achievable by everyone. So, from a mental health perspective in particular, being a little bit more active and getting in a little bit more movement every day is a useful place to start. If people can engage in small bouts of physical activity throughout the day — even 1 or 2 minutes at a time — and build up to 10 to 20 minutes a day, that’s helpful.
The research is still in its infancy in terms of dose, frequency, and type of physical activity, but we generally know that any intermittent activity is beneficial.
Does it matter whether we are physically active in the morning, afternoon or evening?
In terms of benefits, we don’t yet know if one time of day is better than another — and whether the benefits will be experienced equally by everyone based on identity factors such as gender, race, and age.
It is crucial to plan physical activity for a time of day when you can actually do it. This is more important than if there is a better time. If I tell you that evening is the best time and you can never incorporate physical activity into your evening routine, it wouldn’t be the best time.
Are all exercises equally good for us?
Technically, all exercise is good for us in terms of movement for mental health benefits. However, exercises that are not fun, that cause pain, or that are done for external reasons, eg because someone else is doing them or someone told you to do them, etc., are not good for us.
Also, adding small bursts of physical activity throughout the day can be beneficial if those bursts are intentional – for example, if we plan for them, notice them and pay attention to what we do and how we feel.
Is “Runners High” a real thing or a myth? Can you get a height from any exercise?
The typical “runner’s high” has been used to describe any state during exercise when mind and body are in sync, biased, free from self-criticism and other thoughts, and you feel effortless while integrating into the environment. Time passes quickly and you feel generally relaxed.
The ‘runner’s high’ is likely to be experienced in any exercise where these conditions are met, but it is often easier to experience it in longer, unrepetitive distances outdoors, so it is more suitable for running, rowing, and cycling, for example. . You are not likely to witness this state of flow during team sports or team activities due to the complexities of environments and people.
Also, while the height or flow of this runner can be experienced in different degrees of exercise, it’s most likely when you push yourself at least a little. There must be some effort required to engage in the activity.
How does MoveU.HappyU help students relieve stress and anxiety?
The program focuses on individualized physical activity so we can embrace the fact that exercise should be fun and build confidence while promoting maintenance.
In the results of the six-week program, we consistently experience a significant reduction in stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression while also experiencing an increase in feelings of confidence, mastery, quality of life, and self-esteem after the program ends.
What would you advise students — and others — who want to become more physically active but can’t commit to a six-week program?
Here are some tips for including physical activity in your day:
- Find on-campus programs and activities offered through KPE’s Sport and Recreation Program. Try different activities and find your favorites that you can come back to again and again.
- Try to include more distance for your commute – get off the bus or subway a stop or two earlier or later, park further from your destination and take the longer route to class. Always use the stairs or ramp instead of the elevator or escalator. Schedule an extra 20 minutes into your calendar to allow for your active commute.
- Move with intention but without purpose. When shopping, move around the mall or the entire store instead of just getting what you need. For example, you can walk or drive every aisle in the supermarket even if you only need vegetables. Browse the entire library instead of just getting what you need.
- Move over with coffee/tea/juice instead of sitting in a coffee shop. Try holding movement-based meetings with others or while planning your group’s tasks. If you work in groups a lot, assign one person per meeting to lead the 3- to 5-minute movement activity.
- Stand or move as much as possible throughout the day. There is new evidence that breaks in sitting time are very important to health. We also have some fun videos that can be used for breaks during classes as well.
- Use technology to “play” your activity. For example, buy a pedometer and try to take a few extra steps every day. If you like competition and support, invite others to join you with the goal of getting more movement time or distance. If you spend a lot of time outside, you can also use online mapping software or smartphone apps that use GPS to show you the distance to go. You can even start drawing your own road maps and try to be creative with the art you can create.
Any tips on staying motivated about physical activity, especially on gray, cold days of the kind we’ve been experiencing lately?
It is important to stay active while staying positive and eliminating self-criticism. You may not be able to do as much activity as you feel you need, but every little bit helps. It is also important to maintain consistent sleep patterns even if it is dark and gloomy. Without the sun, you can still be active outside and still benefit from getting around in nature.
Natural light is really important no matter how bright the sun is. If you don’t really like the idea of being outside, now is the time to try out more virtual fitness classes that are available than ever before.
There are many workouts available for free online and on social media, including U of T’s three-minute motion break videos and Sport & Rec’s virtual workout library.
About this exercise and mental health research news
author: Jelena Damjanovic
Source: University of Toronto
Contact: Jelena Damjanovic – University of Toronto
picture: The image is in the public domain