Getting the Right Fit

In this series on How Exercise Makes You Happy, we’ve seen how exercise gives a boost to your brain health and lifts your mood. From BDNF, the caregiver to your brain cells, to all the happy chemicals involved in making you feel great, exercise can boost them all.

Imagine that you could call a superhero to fight off your depression and anxiety symptoms. With exercise, you don’t get just one superhero, you call a whole team of superheroes. With BDNF as captain: serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, norepinephrine and endorphins all show up to help.

Exercise can be a powerful tool against depression and anxiety. Even if you don’t deal with these conditions, exercise could help prevent them.

How you exercise matters. I’m sure you want to know how much and how often you need to exercise to get these benefits. Well, I can’t exactly tell you that. But, I can talk about what research shows. 

Exercise can be a powerful tool against depression and anxiety. Even if you don’t deal with these conditions, exercise could help prevent them. How you exercise matters. I’m sure you want to know how much and how often you need to exercise to get these benefits. Well, I can’t exactly tell you that. But, I can talk about what research shows. 

Getting the Right Fit

Fitness is a very personal thing. There is no one-size-fits-all workout routine that is best for everyone. Getting the right fit in your routine needs to take into account your sex, age, weight and current fitness level and any health conditions that you have. These all shape what type of exercise, and what intensity level is best for you. 

The best way to find out what works for you, is to consult your doctor or other certified or licensed professionals in the exercise science field. I am neither of these things. I’m just a person who enjoys reading health science research and sharing what I read with people. So take it all with a grain of salt. I include links to the research I discuss, where I can. I highly encourage you to explore them, and maybe even share them with your healthcare professionals as you discuss what is best for you. 

Something is Better than Nothing

The good news with pursuing exercise as a management tool for mental health, is that it doesn’t seem to take very much to start getting some real benefits. Doing some kind of exercise is better than nothing. It doesn’t have to be high-intensity aerobics, and it doesn’t have to be every single day, or last for hours at a time. Relieved? Me too.

In fact, too much exercise or too high of an intensity, could be problematic for your health. It really just depends. I think that there’s sometimes this temptation to do a lot of exercise all at once, as if we could make up for all the days that we didn’t exercise. That’s not really how it works. Your body is used to a certain level of activity, and so there’s only a certain level of intensity or duration of exercise that it can take on, without running into problems. There I go with the puns again. 

That’s why training exists. A training program breaks big fitness goals down into attainable pieces, with a natural progression based on your current fitness level, and your other health factors. Now, you don’t need to be part of a formal training program to get mental health benefits. Just start where you are, and consider where you can gradually include a little more movement in your life. 

Start Where You Are

For those of you who don’t have a regular exercise routine, I have good news for you. Research shows that you might get some mental health benefits as soon as you get started! Simple things like going for a walk, or doing more physical tasks in your daily life can be enough to see improvements.

In his book about Blue Zones, Dan Buettner noted how the people who lived the longest, healthiest lives, had several habits in common. One of those habits was including physical activity as a normal part of their daily lives. In places like Sardinia, Italy, walking long distances is a regular part of daily life. 

In urban and suburban settings, that can look like parking the car farther away at the store, or taking the stairs sometimes instead of the elevator. Step trackers are great tools for building more physical activity into your daily life. You don’t necessarily have to buy another device, because your phone can help you track your steps too. 

Exercise vs. Physical Activity

What I just described falls under the definition of physical activity. It’s a more general term, used to describe movement of many kinds. This includes activities like cleaning the house and yard work. Increasing physical activity counts towards mental health benefits too. Exercise on the other hand, is defined as an intentional type of physical activity, for a certain duration of time. “Exercise is physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and purposive…” 

How Much Should I Exercise?

The American Heart Association recommends that adults get a total of about 2.5 hours of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise per week. That could be in 30 minute sessions 5 days a week, or close to 20 minutes 7 days a week. Strength training is recommended for 2 sessions a week. If you’re just starting out, it’s best to start small, and gradually increase the intensity and amount over time. This can help prevent injury, or the bad effects of over exercising. 

I’ve got more good news for you. If you’re just starting out, you don’t need to begin at the official recommendations above to get the mental health benefits. A meta-analysis shows that people who did half of the recommended physical activity had an 18% lower risk of depression! 

The Right Intensity

This one’s tricky. How hard you exercise should take into account your current exercise training level, any health conditions you have, and how you’re doing on that particular day. For example, maybe you are just getting over the flu, and you’re feeling a little extra tired that day. In this case it would be wise to listen to your body and do a low – key gentle exercise, or simply get some rest and pick it back up another day. 

I have found that my exercise capacity varies from day to day. I have a familiar walking route that I do near my home, and I’ve noticed that I could do that same walk, at the same pace, with very different results in my heart rate. Why is that? Well, this is a great example of why it’s important to understand your individual exercise needs, and listen to your body daily.

Listen to Your Body

 For example, my exercise routine needs to take into account the fact that I have certain health conditions. I’ve learned from experience, that if I ignore my fatigue level that day, and power through a moderate to intense exercise, I could end up making my symptoms worse, to the point that I can’t function normally the next day. This is something very specific to my health condition. So it’s important for you too, if you have certain health conditions, to know how different types of exercise affect you. The goal is to find the most benefit without causing harm.

It’s crucial to strike the right balance. For some health conditions, the exercise needs can change daily. I have to budget my energy so I don’t end up causing my symptoms to intensify.

If you have a chronic health condition, you can probably relate. I also think that it is an important concept for people without health conditions. Listening to your body is such an important aspect of getting the right fit in your exercise plan. There’s an art to learning when to do more and when to do less. 

That walk I mentioned earlier, is what I consider my baseline exercise for most days. But sometimes I start out with that baseline goal of doing a mile, or doing 20 minutes of brisk walking with inclines, and then I discover that I’m feeling up for a little more that day, so I increase the pace, distance or time accordingly. There are even days when I feel good enough to pick up the pace, or hike up a mountain. So I listen to my body, and do a little more. 

Mindfulness in Exercise

A great way to learn how to listen to your body is through mindfulness and meditation. I know there’s a lot of talk about meditation these days. If you’ve never done it, it’s a simple thing, it just takes practice. In the United States, we are wired by our culture to always be paying attention to things outside of our body. We are bombarded by advertisements that hope to grab our attention and guide our behavior so that we purchase this or that. 

And it’s not just ads. You could be sitting at home surrounded by visual cues of what chores you need to do, or bills you need to pay, or children or pets you need to attend to. Those aren’t bad of course, but we need mental breaks from all of those messages and all of that activity. 

Well, meditation gives us that much needed mental break. It switches your attention away from external signals, toward the internal signals. It’s like unplugging from the signals of the world around you, and letting them fade to the background, while inviting a calm observance of your inner self. It’s a simple thing, but a powerful thing. It can help guide you to taking better care of yourself. It can be a great tool for finding the right fit in your fitness plan.

You could even practice mindfulness as you walk. Try walking without music, and unplugging yourself from your to do list and other worries. Just give yourself permission to walk at an easy pace, for 20 minutes, gently observing the scenery around you. Tune in to the moment. It might take practice to get into that calm observation mode. That’s okay. You’re retraining your attention. You’re working on attending to yourself, and learning what you need. That’s really at the heart of setting individualized exercise goals. 

Heart Rate

Heart rate is a great way to measure the intensity of your exercise. It can vary daily, so it’s a great way to monitor how your body is registering the exercise. Is a brisk walk light, moderate or intense for you? Is walking enough to get your heart rate into a moderate intensity zone? Is the intensity of your exercise enough to get the mental health benefits we talked about? 

Sometimes research gives details about a percentage of heart rate that yields the greatest benefits. So it’s good to calculate your max heart rate, and identify the range it needs to be in when you workout, in order to get the most benefits. 

After you determine the range your heart rate should be in for the maximum benefit, the goal is to keep it in that range for a certain amount of time. Usually the recommendation is about 20-30 minutes.

I’ll say it again here, start from wherever you are, and gradually work towards that. If you’re not up to 20-30 minutes yet, maybe try 10 and see what you can do.

Make it Simple, Make it Fun

While getting the right fit can be complex, getting the mental health benefits of exercise is pretty simple. Just adding in a little more physical activity to your everyday life is a great place to start. It doesn’t take an intense, painful workout to improve your mental health. Just add more movement to your day, make it fun, make it something easy for you to say yes to.