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Exercise Your Way to Better Mental Health During COVID-19

When it first began, we all thought it would pass over within a few months and our lives would return to normal. Two years later and we’ve learnt to adapt to a new kind of normal. For many of us, the greatest challenge has been the adjustment to a new way of living. We’re constantly keeping up with news stories, press conferences and the need to adapt accordingly and sometimes quickly. These new additions and stress have received mixed responses among the community. For a lot of us, this change has affected our mental health in some way or another. We spoke with Matt, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at QSMC, about how keeping up with physical activity is beneficial for managing our state of mental health. Here’s what he had to say: 

Mental health can simply be explained as a person’s condition concerning their emotional and psychological wellbeing. The first, emotional, is what we’re going to focus on today. What is it about the last two years that has affected our emotional state? 

I believe the primary reason has been a loss of routine and the subsequent consequences of this. A loss of routine can have an impact on many aspects of our life including social well being, exercise habits, eating, sleep quality and many other habits we perform in our day-to-day lives. If you remember, some of these were taken away or restricted during the early stages of COVID-19. 

Even now, there is not the same level of ease and access to these activities as we used to have. All of these aspects, including the uncertainty of when things might resume to what we previously knew, can harm our mental wellbeing. By rebuilding or creating a consistent exercise schedule, we can resume some type of ‘normal’ routine and help our minds to calm our emotional state. It’s widely known and spoken about a lot, that exercise is good for us, but here are a few key benefits you may not know: 

  • Improves our physical health 
  • Improves sleep quality
  • Helps manage eating habits and aids in weight loss
  • Can help with socialising
  • Improves mental wellbeing   

When starting something new, or trying a different approach, it can be hard to know where to start. There is no one rule or one-size-fits-all approach on how to exercise. It’s important to remember that everyone’s exercise routine and preferences will differ. Ask yourself these questions to help kick start your journey: 

  • When I have exercised in the past, what have I enjoyed doing? 
  • When can I exercise during the week? How much time can I allocate? 
  • Do I have someone or can I get support to help me start? 

Being honest with yourself and answering these questions truthfully is the first step on your way to starting your routine. These help you identify what activities you enjoy (ensuring you won’t get bored), you know how much time you have and what days you need to pencil exercise in; and you know if you can reach out for support to help keep yourself motivated and accountable. However, if you struggled to answer any of these questions, please don’t feel stressed or overwhelmed, you can still begin a routine! 

There are a few options to get you started. Foremost, I can highly recommend seeking advice. As an Exercise Physiologist, we are trained in this type of scenario and work with you to strive toward your goals and get you started in a routine. Something simple as taking up walking is another option. It can be encouraging for many people to start this with a friend. Here are a few ideas on how to start walking for exercise: 

How long should you walk for?
Start by keeping it comfortable, aim for small distances of about 10-20 minutes and build up.

How many times per week should you walk?
To get you started, I recommend aiming for twice per week. If you’re finding this manageable, why not go for 3? The key is to be consistent. 2-3 times per week, every week. Eventually, a great target would be 3-5 times per week, this may take some time to build to.

How fast should you walk?
I recommend aiming for lower to moderate intensity. Here’s a quick guide to help you:

  • Low intensity – being able to hold a conversion whilst you walk
  • Moderate intensity – you’re able to talk, but are finding yourself having to catch your breath
  • High intensity – you’re unable to talk

The main goal to keep in mind is to establish an effective routine that fits your schedule and your preferences. I recommend tracking your exercise or activities by writing them down. A great idea could be a small whiteboard on the fridge. It can also be beneficial to journal or track how you feel. What most people find is that keeping up a consistent routine will overall make them feel happier, be more productive and sleep better; all aspects that positively influence our mental health. Whenever you slip out of routine or aren’t feeling too motivated, you can look back on this and remember how good it makes you feel in more than one aspect of your life. 

Here is an example of what your walk grid might look like.

Week 1Walk 20 minWalk 20 min
Week 2Walk 20 minWalk 20 minWalk 20 min
Week 3Walk 20 minWalk 20 minWalk 30min
Week 10Walk 30 minWalk 20 minWalk 30 minParkrun Walk 5km

As you can see in the plan above, it has progressed in three ways. First, a third walk was added in week 2 (Saturday). Secondly, on Saturday of week 3, the duration of the walk increased from 20 minutes to 30 minutes. And finally, as we skip to week 10, your fitness along with your confidence has improved, so much so that you felt ready to join a social atmosphere such as participating in the 5km Parkrun walk on Saturday morning. 

Congratulations, now you’ve got a routine going! Whether your choice of exercise is walking, running, swimming, tennis or even badminton – every bit helps! When the quantity and quality of your exercise increase so do the stability and control of your emotional state and mental wellbeing. If you’re keen to learn more or need some help on getting started, please reach out to our team, we will always be here to help!

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