During lockdown, the new rules of life can pull our mental health into a damaging spiral.
While staring at the same four walls our anxiety and stress can be heightened by worries over anything and everything – jobs, money, living arrangements, the pandemic itself – and those feelings are compounded by an absence of the great ways in which we usually relieve them.
Those small but important releases like socialising and exercising have been limited, and the result is sometimes a hard cycle to break. Often we turn to short-term fixes like alcohol or unhealthy foods which give a brief relief but tend make us feel worse in the long run.
Even in lockdown there are still plenty of ways to combat this, of course. A kind of ‘distant-socialising’ is still possible over video conference, provided you’ve got the patience to cope with several hundred “sorry, no, you go” interludes. And exercise is not just allowed but is very much encouraged by Public Health England and mental health professionals to help us all through this period.
When it comes to exercise, everyone knows the rules by now: we are allowed out once per day to exercise and, so long as we are on our own or with a member of our household, there are no fixed limits on how much we can do or how far we should go (although it is stressed that you should “stay local”).
With a more static day-to-day lifestyle than normal, many people have been heading out in their socially distanced droves to walk and run through parks and cycle on the near-empty roads, and are taking part in online fitness classes in the living room. Cycling in particular has seen an enormous uptake with bikes on the road at around double normal levels, while fitness professionals claim the industry has “changed forever” in the pandemic.
So how can exercise help relieve the stress of lockdown, and which exercises are best?
How does exercise improve our mental health?
While exercise is not a magic cure for serious mental health problems, it is proven to have benefits for the mind that can lower stress, reduce feelings of isolation and help ease anxiety and depression. As David Linden, professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University, explains: “Exercise has a dramatic anti-depressive effect. It blunts the brain’s response to physical and emotional stress.”
Exercise increases endorphins but it also releases a range of other chemicals that boost mood, including dopamine, adrenaline, myosin (released when your muscles contract) and serotonin.
There are also several knock-on effects when exercising. Exercise can have a meditative effect on the mind which helps to relax and distract from any worries and stresses. It can also help to improve sleep quality – something closely linked with our mood – and to build self-confidence, simply by being active and using the body.
What are the best exercises to relieve stress?
So long as it isn’t damaging your body, there is no such thing as bad exercise. Anything from swimming to weight training and hiking to dancing has great benefits for your mental health. But particularly in a time of lockdown, certain exercise is easier to do and is especially beneficial for relieving stress.
Walking: If you’re feeling stressed, then summoning the energy and motivation to exercise is the first hurdle to overcome. Even a 20-minute walk is good for the mind, especially if you live near a park, fields or woodland. One study found that walking through green space, rather than an urban setting, brought about a state of “lower frustration” and “higher meditation”. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that regularly walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26 per cent.
Try daily hour-long walks, where possible, ideally in green space. For the full meditative effect, leave distractions like a mobile phone at home.
Running: That same Harvard study found that running for 15 minutes a day has a similar effect on our mental health to walking for an hour. Another study found that regular runners have higher levels of endocannabinoids, which play a key role in regulating several psychological conditions and diseases. Running will often also produce a ‘runner’s high’, that relaxing feeling afterwards that is effectively the opposite of the lethargy felt after a long period slumped on the sofa or sat at a desk.
Try finding a weekly pattern of two or three runs per week, ideally somewhere calming with clean air like woodland, and set small goals like reaching a landmark without stopping or beating your personal best time on a favourite route.
Yoga: Yoga is the queen of stress relief when it comes to exercise. Anything that combines fluid movements with deep breathing and focuses the mind on the present moment is found to reduce anxiety and induce calm, and nothing is better than yoga for that peaceful sensation. It lowers stress in 85 per cent of participants, according to the results of a survey by Psychology Today, while one study found that active yoga was significantly more effective in relieving stress than simply taking time to relax.
Try the many yoga videos online for beginners which specifically aim at targetting stress.
Circuit/interval training: High-intensity workouts which combine cardio with weight training, for example, are highly recommended. The anaerobic exercise of an activity to sprints reduces cortisol levels, while resistance training at low to moderate intensity is proven to decrease anxiety.
Try one of these full-body workouts that you can do at home in lockdown, or design your own simple circuit with four moves – like push-ups, squats, sprints and power jacks – and customise to suit your level. Make sure to warm up and cool down when doing intensive exercise. You can also try this HIIT home workout.
Want something different? Gardening, Tai Chi and dancing have all been proven to lower stress, and anything of at least 45 minutes is a surprisingly good workout for the body too.
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