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Healthy habits to hold onto during the pandemic

Many people are discovering more time for things during Covid-19 restrictions.

This blog was written by Madeline Tatham, a Health Promotion Practitioner at Peninsula Health.

We all know that it is important for our health to be physically active, and we are learning more and more about the importance of taking care of our mental health, and how this impacts our overall health. But not everyone knows the significance of the relationship between our physical and mental health, and how the two interact.

So in this piece we explore this a little further. We’ve also included some snaps of out team members throughout doing their own joyful movement!

Maintaining mental health and regular physical activity is more important now than ever

In this article by The Conversation, the authors highlight that stress has been a major implication for many during the coronavirus pandemic. But on a more positive note, they say that exercise and physical activity can help us with this stress response.

In the article they explain that just like strengthening a muscle, exercise “tones” our stress system so that it can cope with higher levels of stress, with less reaction and a faster recovery time.

This can in turn help to make us more resilient overall to all forms of stressors. Research shows as little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise, three times a week, can boost mood, reduce psychological distress, and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in sedentary individuals.

When compared with antidepressant medications, this dose of exercise is just as effective at treating mental illness brought on by stress.

Some of us will be more eager than ever to return to hobbies involving groups post-pandemic. 

According to Scott Lear, Professor of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, preventing mental illness is just as important as preventing chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, where regular physical activity also plays a key role.

Lear highlights research that shows after just one exercise session, we have a greater chance of experiencing positive events and achievements that day, and that just one bout of exercise can increase memory and cognition.

Lear also discusses how regular physical activity has been shown to improve the self-esteem of elderly persons, and let’s not forget the opportunities it can provide for social engagement, which is also important for mental health.

As we age our brain volume decreases, however studies have shown that those who engage in an exercise program can experience modest increases in the volume of their brains emotional centre, compared to those who don’t.

Lear says that regular physical activity will help to keep you sharper in the short term, and may even help to protect against future mental illness. It doesn’t matter whether you walk, run, ride or do daily yoga, everyone will benefit from moving their body regularly.

Physical activity and the brain

Healthdirect explains that exercise stimulates chemicals that improve our mood, sometimes referred to as the happy hormones. When we exercise, our body pumps blood to the brain, which helps us think clearer and increases the size of the hippocampus (or brain’s memory centre).

Not only that, exercise increases the connections between nerve cells in the brain, which also improve memory and protects us against brain injury and disease.

Making time for yourself is far more achievable for some during the pandemic.

You can take your physical activity experience to another level and practice mindfulness whilst exercising, as this further works to reduce stress levels and improve mental health.

Check out this link to learn more.

Tips and more from the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel

The Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of physical activity daily for adults and 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily for children. According to Better Health Channel, exercise not only keeps us physically healthy, but mentally healthy too.

Research suggests that physical activity can be as effective as antidepressants or psychological treatments for managing mild depression. On the other hand, when a person is not physically active this can be a cause of mental illness.

The Better Health Channel offers some possible explanations as to why physical activity is so good at lifting our mood: improved sleep, increased sense of self control, offers a distraction, an outlet, new experiences and socialisation, causes a change in brain chemicals and reduces tensions in the skeletal muscles.

If you’re getting outdoors more recently, think of ways you can maintain the behaviour.

Those who exercise regularly have been shown to have better mental health and emotional wellbeing and lower rates of mentally ill health, than those who do not. Better Health Channel also highlights that those with mental illness are more likely to have chronic physical conditions such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes, all of which can be prevented with a healthy balance of regular movement.  

Physical activity helps to improve our frame of mind, concentration, alertness, cardiovascular and overall physical and mental health. If you’re suffering from mental illness, exercise can play a big role in your treatment or management plan.

If you’d like to get started with incorporating some physical activity into your life, Better Health Channel has the following advice:

  • Speak with your GP before starting a new exercise regime
  • Choose an activity that you like or are interested in trying
  • Build up your intensity and timing gradually
  • Schedule it into your diary/ calendar

Further advice for being more physically active

Some simple ideas for including more physical activity into your day include: walking or cycling rather than using a car, parking further from your destination and walking the rest of the way and getting active around the house by gardening, washing your car or washing windows.

Being active can come in many different forms and be done in many different places!

Walk Yourself Happy (SA Health) tells us that any brisk walk of at least ten minutes is good for our health. Their key points for keeping physically active, both in the home and workplace, include: to walk the dog in the morning or evening, walk to the local shops if you need something, walk around the block with the family, do some housework and limit screen time for both children and adults.

When at work, use your lunch break to go for a ten minute walk, get away from the desk as much as possible throughout the day and opt to take the stairs.

Exploring your local area is an easy way to learn more about where you live and get exercise at the same time.

If you, like many,  struggle to get motivated, Walk Yourself Happy suggest to try journaling how you feel after exercising, and use this as future inspiration. It can also be encouraging to set personal goals and reward yourself when you achieve them, for example, come home from your walk to your favourite cup of tea or coffee.

Advice from Headspace is to start off small and set yourself achievable goals, track your progress and your mood, make the time despite being busy, and set a routine by, for example, having workout gear ready to go the night before and setting an alarm.

Beyond Blue explains that exercise gives us a sense of accomplishment, as our fitness improves and we start achieving our goals. Exercise is also commonly a shared activity, meaning increased opportunities for social connection (only when it’s safe to do so of course!).

When starting an exercise routine from scratch, it can help to find your reason/set your intention and make commitments to others by, for example, scheduling in sessions with a friend or family member.

To finish off, some wise words we came across from Beyond Blue are that the most important thing is to be kind to yourself, especially if you haven’t done physical activity in a while. Try to treat each day as a fresh start, and remind yourself that you’re only human, and we all drop the ball occasionally.

There’s no reason why you can’t pick yourself up and start again. We know that spending time in nature can boost our mental health, so why not get outside this afternoon or weekend? Take a walk in the park, at the beach or around your local reserve (socially distanced of course).

Walking is free and we have access to so many beautiful reserves and walking tracks across the Frankston and Mornington Peninsula region, so we urge you to get out and explore, whether its for 5 minutes or 30 minutes (and even if it’s just a workout in your backyard)!

If you are interested in creating healthy environments, would like to partner with us, or have a question, please contact us at: healthpromotion@phcn.vic.gov.au