What is the one thing you can do right now to help yourself?
We may all be in this together, but our responses to the pandemic are as diverse as the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Yet, country by country, many common responses are emerging. Sky-high anxiety rates linked to the pandemic are just starting to be tracked. So is an upswing in depression. Maybe you are fielding your own frequent mood swings. Even anger. This is going on too long. With no end in sight.
What is the one thing you can do right now to help yourself? Move. Lift a weight. Do a plank or a bridge. Not just one. Create a habit. An exercise habit. Why? A good exercise habit can make you more resilient and better able to deal with whatever the world tosses at you.
Two days into this precarious month, I read an article in the Wellness section of the Washington Post (September 2, 2020) titled ‘Your brain on barbells: Could strength training help improve your mood?’ The timing of this article was perfect. September 2020 may be cast forever in our memories as the month of risky school openings, hairy business returns, and a persistent fear about a second wave. In the article, Lorne David Opler, a Toronto personal trainer and college professor of fitness and health promotion, reviews newly released research on strength training and mood disorders. One of the studies he cites, published in June 2018 JAMA Psychiatry, drew a direct correlation between resistance exercise and depression, noting that participants had a positive boost in mood even if they did not train hard (my emphasis). Opler also reviewed an article on resistance training and anxiety: a 2017 study in Sports Medicine that concluded ‘resistance training significantly improves anxiety symptoms among both healthy participants and participants with a physical or mental illness.’
Resistance training, also called strength training, is working with weights, flex bands and the resistance of one’s own body. Exercises you do in Pilates or other exercise classes, especially those that use weights and resistance bands, are not only good for your muscles, but your mood. Exercise—forming the habit of exercise—is crucial because it prepares your body to be ‘stress hardy,’ a term used in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic work Full Catastrophe Living. A stress hardy body is more resilient, more able to buffer stress. Kabat-Zinn, who invented the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, reminds us that being more resilient directly affects ‘your degree of confidence in your ability to handle adversity.’ He calls this ability self-efficacy: your view of yourself as a person, your views on change, and your ability to handle challenges of all kinds.
Stress is the body’s survival mechanism against what it perceives as danger – which can be anything that puts pressure on an individual physically or emotionally. The most obvious stresses come from the outside: change of job or the loss of a loved one. A global pandemic, with its havoc and financial disasters, counts as an immense stressor. When anger, anxiety, depression and other such emotions are generated by stress, they build up. They live on buried in the subconscious. They even trigger a biochemical chain of events that affects the body.
Hans Selye, the father of stress theory, was one of the first to study how chronic stress and depression can compromise the body’s immune system and lead to serious disease. His pioneering research and experiments have influenced many others in this crucial field of study. Selye was particularly interested in how physical and mental stressors leave their mark on the body systems and use up the limited supply of what Selye calls ‘adaptation energy’ in the body. Another word for adaptation energy is vitality, and Selye warns us that using it up translates directly to ageing.
How do we build up our precious supply of vital energy or resilience to work off emotions and tensions before they create harmful effects on our health? By setting in place a good exercise habit. Right now. Find something you like to do and do it often. Walk daily, pedal a bike, or join an exercise or dance class. And make sure you add strength training to any aerobic activity that you enjoy.
Jon Kabat-Zinn penned these words thirty years ago but they ring true today.
While there will always be many potential stressors in our environment over which we cannot have immediate control, by changing the way we see ourselves in relationship to them, we can actually expand our experience of the relationship, and therefore modify and modulate the extent to which it taxes or exceeds our resources or endangers our well-being.
– Jon Kabat-Zinn
A good exercise habit will fare you well long after these troubling times are over. Next week we’ll focus on some essential, life-enhancing, mood-boosting Pilates moves. I hope you’ll join me.