Charlotte Willis explores the benefits of getting yourself moving more frequently…
In a modern world where social media dominates, never before have we been more obsessed with fitness, wellness and health. In reality, our habitual patterns of exercise and movement tell another, quite sedentary, tale. Our levels of inactivity are at an all-time high, as the majority of us spend our working days sitting still for hours upon end. This year, let’s move it for our health!
How often do you move it?
There’s many an aspect that I truly love, embrace and admire about modern day life and our intrinsically-bound relationship with technology. Do I revel in the ability to order and receive essential vegan ingredients and superfoods online within 24 hours? Of course! And there’s nothing I love more than to spend an hour scrolling over the latest ethical fashion buys on some of my favourite independent designer’s websites. But the development of modern technology has a lot to answer for, both good and bad, when it comes to our health as a global population.
Shockingly, just under a quarter of us (23% on average, based on statistics for men and women combined) are classed as being under-active or inactive according to the latest NHS Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet report for 2018. That’s around 1 in 4 of us who do not meet the required government-based recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week (or an equivalent combination of both), in bouts of 10 minutes or more. What’s stopping us from being active?
Disease, mental health and inactivity
Those who would categorise themselves as inactive or as having a relatively low activity level usually tend to attribute their poor exercise frequency to one specific factor: time. There don’t seem to be enough hours in the day and days in the week when it comes to making exercise a priority for many of us. Our busy schedules, 24/7 working lives and endless to-do lists make the thought of exhausting ourselves at a 6AM spinning class somewhat undesirable to say the least.
After all, in-between office hours, having a social life, eating healthily and trying to stay as mindful as possible, all while ensuring you get 7-8 hours of good quality sleep every night *takes long inhale*… the most exercise many of us manage to schedule is an occasional stroll around the city or infrequent running (an errand, that is).
The question now arises as to what effect our lack of activity is having upon our mental and physical wellbeing? According to findings by the World Health Organization (2013), inactivity can be held responsible for approximately 6% of coronary heart disease incidences, 7% of type 2 diabetes, and 10% of both breast and colon cancers. Quite shocking statistics, when we consider that almost a quarter of our population in the UK are considered inactive.
Inactivity levels have also been scientifically linked to reduced mental health, particularly in psychologically vulnerable populations and adolescents. It appears that physical exercise, such as cardiovascular training and weight-based resistance training, can act as a buffer mechanism towards easing the symptoms of many psychological conditions including stress, anxiety, depression and related disorders.
So much so that the mental-health affirming effects of regular physical exercise are scientifically comparable to those of lower to mid-dose anti-anxiety medications, such as beta blockers. This is because engagement in physical exercise triggers the same physiological responses (increased heart rate, sweating and increased rate of breathing) as anxiety and related conditions.
It is theorised that by engaging in physical activity, we help train our minds and bodies to better adapt to stressful stimuli, and respond in a more measured way when everyday anxiety places strains upon our mental clarity. Something worth considering next time you decide to snooze rather than taking that early exercise class!
Where to start?
OK, now we’ve all heard about how beneficial exercise is for both mind and body, and chances are I’m not the first one to tell you that increasing your level of activity will help increase your health and vitality ten-fold. However, none of this information will actually be of much benefit to anyone unless you truly make the decision to get active for yourself.
In psychological terminology (I know, but bear with me here) there’s only two types of motivation that will encourage you to successfully pursue and maintain a goal (be it trying vegan in January, or getting more active). These are; Intrinsic Motivation – being motivated by internal desires, and Achievement Based Motivation – being motivated and driven by achieving goals set along a journey.
Unfortunately, being motivated by external factors (such as your nagging friends, or nagging health writers) won’t get you very far when it comes to forming healthy habits. While external motivators, such as pleasing a friend by joining her at a spin class, might make you take the initial steps into a gym, but the chances are that you’ll never return again unless you are internally motivated to do so. This in mind, how do we begin to form these intrinsically motivating thoughts within ourselves?
Make a plan. Make it realistic
One way to help motivate you towards forming sustainable healthy exercise habits is to set yourself a series of achievable, planned and inspiring goals, which both excite and enthuse you to get moving for good. For example, you might start off by setting yourself a target of attending three gym classes a week before you start work (take it from me, a workout before you go to work is sure to energise you for the rest of the day!), or go for a series of four, weight-based gym workouts every evening after work, for a total of three weeks.
If you enjoy being outdoors, opt for more of a natural approach by donning some warm running clothes and hitting the streets, fields and pavements around you. One of my favourite ways to keep myself motivated when exercising outdoors is to wear a fitness tracker or use an app on my phone (such as Map My Fitness) to keep a track of the routes I’ve run, cycled and wandered. You can use these maps and times to keep a track of your progress as your fitness increases, which will motivate you even more to continue with your healthy journey.
The most important aspect of beginning any new life-affirming habit, is to take things at your own, manageable pace. Don’t walk into the gym and expect to squat 100kg first time, nor should you expect to run a 5k in the first two months of your fitness regime. In order to maintain intrinsic, internal motivation, remain focused on an achievable goal. When motivation supplies are running low, take time to visualise yourself completing your goal, making a mental note of how you feel and what you did to get to the position you are imagining yourself in. Goal setting and visualisation are essential for the highest of performing athletes, but the techniques can be mastered and applied to every fitness goal imaginable.
Super-Simple Healthy Vegan High-Protein Meals
- Buddha Bowls using a great vegan protein source such as tofu, seitan, beans and legumes.
- Oatmeal with protein powder and peanut butter.
- Wholemeal pasta salad with beans and pulses.
- Wholesome scratch-made lentil ragout with wholemeal pasta.
- Quinoa black bean burger patties and steamed veg.
- Protein pancakes with banana and almond butter.
So what type of exercise is best for me?
I often get asked this question, and my response is simply this: whatever you feel you are able to enjoy, and commit to, for the foreseeable future. Sure, surfing is a fantastic way to get in shape! But realistically, how likely are you to go surfing multiple times a week? Sometimes, the best exercises for you are the most simple to begin, such as cycling and running.
If you don’t know where to start, my best advice is to trial a wide variety of different activities and exercises by joining a local gym or health club. Attend at least two or three different classes every week, and once you find your niche, you’ll soon be hooked!
The best form of exercise is any type of movement at all, for at least 150 minutes (that’s just 2.5 hours) per week. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you enjoy it, and be sure to timetable regular sessions and intervals into your weekly schedules in order to maintain your interest and motivation. Always try to keep your workouts varied, and don’t forget to challenge yourself every now and again by setting a new aspiration or goal to keep you pushing forward. So, for our health and mental wellbeing this January, let’s move it today.
Charlotte is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with the Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness. She is currently researching and studying the various links between food and psychological health while pursuing a doctorate degree in counselling.