I remember when I stopped doing gymnastics. My then 30 year old brother said to his friends: “My 13 year old sister is a retiree!” For 5 exciting years I had trained and competed and enjoyed every part of my gymnastics life. Then it seemed the other girls were performing at a higher level than me, and I was discouraged that I couldn’t keep up. I broke a finger on the uneven parallel bars, and had a hard time regaining my confidence, strength and form. For a year I lost structure as I wasn’t involved in sport. Later I would take up badminton and cycling, but during that year post gymnastics I was without a direction. Life had less sparkle as my fitness level and involvement with sport and exercise fell.
I am reminded of that time now during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Many people feel lost without the rhythm of exercise classes. We have lost structure and are feeling off balance emotionally and physically. The uncertainty of these times is elevating stress, anxiety and our nervous systems are on alert. People are also missing the social contact that the classes bring to their lives.
In last month’s blog post I touched on some healing methods that contribute to our overall wellbeing. We discovered how journaling is a powerful wellness tool. Today I want to explore and share some of the research on exercise as a healing modality. Research consistently shows that exercise has positive effects on our nervous system, our mental health, our cardiovascular, pulmonary, endocrine and immune systems, our musculoskeletal system, to name a few.
Let’s take a look at some evidence that exercise helps our mental health. I think most of us can relate to how much a walk in the forest, a bike ride, doing Tai Chi, yoga or a workout at the gym can decrease stress, improve our mood, and give us joy and a way of seeing things more clearly.
These positive effects are thought to be mediated through the release, for example, of endorphins
and an alteration in cerebral blood flow.
Deslandes et al https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19521110/
I found numerous studies demonstrating the positive effect of exercise in a clinical population, for example those with depression and anxiety. Deslandes’ paper also highlights that exercise can prevent or reduce the risk of developing mental health concerns such as clinical depression, anxiety, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It appears that exercise improves the quality of life in people and also their condition itself.
But what about the non-clinical healthy population? Many of my Physiotherapy patients enjoy resistance training. Is there evidence to suggest mood can be enhanced with resistance training?
A 2012 UK study by Zanuso et al published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology (2012) showed that a strength training program has a positive effect on mood and decreases anxiety in a healthy population. The researchers had a group of 65 year old healthy men and women perform resistance exercise 3 X a week for 12 weeks. The sample size was only 20, but the research demonstrated that not only were there significant muscle strength increases in the intervention group, but there was also a moderate improvement of overall psychological function. Interestingly, the control group’s (no strength training) anxiety levels decreased as well, and the authors suggest that this could have been due to the fact the control group interacted with the researchers and each other and benefited from the social interaction.
The full text is available as a download.
Exercise and sport are vital to our whole body health. It does require dedication to maintain a daily home exercise practice during this COVID 19 pandemic and also during normal times. I know it can be challenging to find the motivation to exercise for a variety of reasons. We may not be able to get together in exercise classes at this time. I believe we can take the reins and stay active, engaged, and help our mental as well as physical health. If we have been unable to exercise for whatever reason, it’s OK. We can start today. It’s never too late to begin, or re-begin.
To your health,
Felicity Goldring, BScPsych, BScPT, Registered Physiotherapist, Holistic Life and Wellness Coach, and retired gymnast.
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