In conjunction with Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s #OnOurSleeves initiative and Mental Health Awareness Month, the Columbus Crew SC Strength & Conditioning Team gives a detailed look into how exercise helps strengthen our mental health and offers tips on exercises to do at home. For tips on how to keep your family mentally fit this summer, be sure to check out Nationwide Children's Hospital's Summer Guide.
Exercise is imperative when it comes to not only cardiovascular, bone and joint health, but also mental health. It is well established that those who exercise regularly typically feel more positive about themselves and are more relaxed.
For example, think about your daily routine and posture throughout the day.
What does it look like? What are your habits? How does your posture change when you’re under stress?
Movement (even as simple as stretching or walking) increases your overall circulation and can alleviate stress-induced tension within your muscles. We all carry physical stress differently depending on how we live our daily lives. Light movement every day can release those pesky tight areas like your neck, shoulders and back.
When your posture is compromised, it affects how you feel and this can affect your mood. Movement can cause a neurochemical shift and help restore your hormonal balance by decreasing the main stress hormones — cortisol, and adrenaline. It also increases the production of endorphins - these serve as your natural pain killers and mood elevators. Stress of any kind can disrupt this hormone balance and throw off your nervous system, which might explain why you might feel a certain way at different times.
At any point in time, your body is trying to maintain a state of homeostasis (balance) between all the systems that regulate its function. For example, your autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions, is balanced between the sympathetic nervous system, which is dominant during periods of stress or perceived danger, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which restores the body to a state of calm. To function optimally, both physically and mentally it’s ideal to be balanced between these systems, and it makes sense that spending a prolonged period of time on either end of the spectrum (parasympathetic dominance vs. sympathetic dominance) can be problematic. Being sympathetically dominant for prolonged periods of stress can create problems with digestion, insomnia and our immune systems.
One of the best ways to regulate and control your nervous system is through diaphragmatic breathing exercises and meditation. With the players at the Crew, breathing exercises are a big part of our post-match recovery sessions because they help restore balance and can also help to elicit a relaxation response by increasing the parasympathetic tone (rest and digest).
Exercise is, of course, another way to maintain this equilibrium. There is a common misconception that in order to benefit from exercise it must either running, biking, lifting or playing a sport. However, physical activity comes in many forms - Mowing the lawn, gardening, cleaning, stretching in between Netflix shows, walking the dog, playing with your kids – the list goes on – but they are all non-traditional ways of exercise that require movement and can still help relieve stress.
Whether you exercise by yourself or with others, it can improve your sense of accomplishment – especially if you have specific daily goals set for “more activity”. I say “more activity” because it does not have to be a complicated or trademarked form of exercise; it can be whatever you enjoy doing or what fits into your daily routine.
Your fitness goal is going to influence the regimen and frequency of the workout, but it all really comes down to turning goals into habits and merging the physical benefits of exercise with the mental.
For example, taking a 30-minute walk to start your day on Monday’s and Wednesday’s would serve as a healthy habit.
First, it begins as a goal, and then eventually a habit and something you can look forward to. Walking is also a great opportunity to ensure proper mental health by giving us time to think, catch up with others, or listen to a podcast. Maybe walking isn’t your thing, but find the activity that fits into your lifestyle and you enjoy doing.
As for tips on getting started, if there is one thing quarantine has taught us, it’s that getting and staying motivated is easier when you have the support of others.
1) Find that person you can tell your goals to and check-in with when you have those days. It’s much harder to tell another person you blew off X, Y, Z because you felt like sitting on the couch than it is to only tell yourself. Also realize we all have our off days…that’s normal.
2) Start small, but still be specific with what you want to achieve. Set 1-2 daily activity goals that you know you can do.
3) Form a group that meets at a specific time. This may not be something that’s recommended or available during this time, but there’s all kinds of ways to get together for virtual workouts or social distancing outdoor activities.
4) Download Headspace or another similar app. Headspace is a meditation app that lets you select what your mental goal is and will then guide you through 10-minute sessions specific to that goal. It is a wonderful tool to help you develop mental strategies in 10 minutes a day. It can be anything from motivation, focus, relaxation or breathing methods to help you fall asleep.
Breathing benefits and exercise example
Just to name a few proven benefits, mindful deep breathing can:
- Decrease heart rate
- Increase oxygen supply to tissues and organs
- Reduce anxiety
- Stabilize blood pressure.
- Increase resilience during stressful times
- Increase focus and attention
- Reduce stress
For athletes learning to breathe deeply can also have several performance benefits. The most important and obvious benefit is the increased oxygen delivery to the muscles for faster energy production and quicker regeneration.
Here is a simple diaphragmatic breathing exercise you can begin with:
- Find a quiet, dim location where you can comfortably sit or lie down.
- I suggest either sitting cross-legged on a pillow against the wall or lying down with legs at 90 degrees against the wall or on a chair. The key in any position is to focus on proper alignment of the spine and pelvis. Your breathing is optimal in a position where your spine and pelvis are stacked.
- Place one hand on your lower abdomen and one hand on your chest.
- Take a few breaths first to observe (nonjudgmentally) which hand moves first.
- Inhale through your nose for a count of four, breathing into your lower abdomen or bottom hand first and your chest second.
- Exhale through your nose for a count of six, emptying out your chest first and lower abdomen second.
- A helpful visual I like to think about is filling a pitcher of water. As the water is poured in, the bottom portion of the pitcher fills first and then slowly rises to the top. When you pour out the water the top empties first and the bottom second.
- Repeat for ten minutes or longer as many days as you can during the week.
- Throughout the exercise continue to observe the changes and sensations you feel as the breath enters and exits the body.