Updated: Nov 10
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We all know that exercise is good for our bodies and minds, but this past year it’s become more important and popular than ever. The fitness app Strava saw a 61% increase in people running in London between April and June 2020 compared with 2019, and sales of trainers, bikes and home fitness equipment have skyrocketed (Financial Times, 2020). Data from 3000 adults in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and Singapore found that 27% of people took up a new form of fitness between March and June, the peak of the global lockdowns (Publicis Sapient, 2020).
Since the November lockdown in England gyms and fitness spaces have reopened in the first three tiers. This reflects an appreciation of the importance of exercise for physical and mental health and the extremely low prevalence of Covid in gyms, at just 0.34 cases per 100,000 visits (UK Active, 2020). Although gyms are closed in the highest tier in England, tier 4, outdoor exercise and home workouts are still encouraged.
So why is exercise so essential during lockdowns and tier-restricted living?
It releases feel-good chemicals
When we exercise certain neurotransmitters including endocannabinoids, endorphins, dopamine and serotonin are released in our brains. These are the same chemicals that are released when we have sex, eat or take drugs (even alcohol), and they help to numb pain and improve mood. So during times of anxiety and stress, like this year, exercise is an excellent way to look after our brain health and flush it with a dose of feel-good chemicals. Research suggests that these neurotransmitters are most likely to be released when we exercise at a moderately challenging intensity for at least twenty minutes – so we don’t have to do particularly heavy exercise or workout for very long to reap the brain benefits.
It gives you a sense of achievement
During a time when it feels like the most you may achieve in a day is washing your hair or cooking some pasta, even doing a 30 minute workout can reward you with a huge sense of accomplishment because you’ve done something positive for your body and mind. We all need psychological boosts like this, especially right now when it feels like there’s not a lot we can do. You can take comfort in the fact that even if you don’t achieve much else that day, at least you’ve done some exercise.
It provides structure in your day
It’s likely that your life lacks the routine it used to have. Maybe you no longer have a commute (unless walking to your kitchen table counts) and you’re no longer living for weekend city breaks (ahh holidays, remember them?) or nights out drinking cocktails with your girlfriends (IRL, Zoom doesn’t count). Perhaps your sleeping and eating patterns are a bit all over the place. Despite this enforced lack of structure in our lives, it’s good to create your own new daily rhythms and routines. Exercise is a great way to do this, as it can act as a much-needed boundary between work and play. Perhaps you like to start your day with a sunrise walk or do an evening online yoga class to help you transition out of your working day?
It improves your sleep
Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has reported difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep or vivid dreams this year. Sleep is at the heart of our physical and mental health, so it’s crucial to take steps to optimise your sleeping habits. This is where exercise comes in - exercise has a wonderful ability to promote deep sleep and increase sleep duration. There are several reasons why exercise is so good for sleep. Firstly, exercise raises core body temperature. Later in the day this returns to a normal level and this cooling-off process helps you to feel drowsy. The only caveat is that it’s best to avoid exercising vigorously late in the day, as this can keep your core temperature elevated for hours afterwards, which can inhibit sleep. Secondly, if you exercise outside this will support a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Exposure to natural light stops the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy, and promotes daytime wakefulness. When it gets dark, melatonin is then released again and this makes you feel tired at night.
It reduces aches and pains
Regular movement is exactly what you need when you’re spending the majority of your day sat at a desk. Even if it’s just a quick wiggle on your yoga mat or a dance party in your kitchen whilst the kettle boils, it will prevent your muscles from seizing up and becoming stiff. Try to get up and move for five minutes every hour or so to counteract the negative effects of sitting. It might not seem like a lot, but it will add up to make a difference to how you feel over the course of a day.
It helps you live in the present
Exercise is a fantastic way to incorporate some mindfulness into your life. It’s a time to focus on the present, rather than ruminating over something that happened in the past or panicking about what might happen in the future. Exercise gives you the opportunity to zone out of all the madness that’s going on in the world and listen to some music, a podcast or simply the sound of your breath, and really get in touch with how your body feels. If you’re doing a form of exercise that requires a lot of concentration you’ll find that there’s not much space left in your brain to worry about the state of the world.
It can be sociable
Exercise doesn’t have to be a solitary activity. Depending on the rules in your area, you may be allowed to meet somebody from a different household outside. If so, a walk or bike ride with a friend is a great way to combine a catch-up with movement. Social support is vital to our mental health, so it’s important to keep in touch with people in whatever way you can right now. If you’re not able to meet outside, online classes or PT sessions are another great option for some social interaction whilst you work out – many gyms now have online offerings so it’s worth checking these out.
Most of us are having to watch our wallets at the moment. Job losses, furlough and not to mention the small issue of Christmas presents means we must be sensible with our money and make savings where we can. The good news is that so many forms of exercise are free. Walking, running, cycling, wild swimming, Youtube yoga, Instagram Live HIIT classes and gardening are just a handful of ways we can move our bodies for free during the pandemic. Exercise does not require a fancy gym membership or loads of expensive equipment for it to be effective.
How much exercise should I be doing?
The NHS recommends that adults do 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, plus at least two sessions of muscle-strengthening exercise. I’d advise trying to do a little bit of movement every day rather than a couple of big sessions, but vary it to keep it interesting and prevent injuries and imbalances. Move in ways that you enjoy, whether that’s gardening, running or press ups in your living room, because if you like doing it you’re more likely to stick with it.