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Life requires movement

“Life requires movement” – Aristotle

We want a magic bullet. We want a miracle cure to all of life’s illnesses. We have something that comes close. It is called EXERCISE! 

I first met 23 year old Henry alongside his desperate parents. Henry was known to be social, happy and the life of the party. Over the last 12 months, he had lost his way. Henry was depressed. He was failing at university, isolating himself and becoming dependent on marijuana. His day mostly consisted of lying in his room, watching TV and smoking weed. Things came to a breaking point when a friend caught him stealing money. He was at rock bottom.

In my upcoming book, Do Happy, I dedicate a whole section to the ‘Fundamentals’ of happiness. In no particular order, here they are

  1. Exercise
  2. Food
  3. Sleep
  4. Relationships
  5. Get outside
  6. Kindness
  7. Gratitude
  8. Meditation for calm/focus
  9. Reduce screen time (replace with any of the above)

Feelings, thoughts and actions are all linked. For more details, read Do Happy.

If you behave differently, the chances are that your feelings and thoughts will also change. The powerful differentiating nature of actions is that we can control them. For example, we can feel depressed, go into a negative thought spiral and still exercise even if we don’t feel like it or we don’t want to.

What I find with a lot of people who are unhappy is that they have lost touch with most of these fundamentals. For someone who is unhappy, not only are they feeling this way, often they are behaving like someone who feels this way. This might look like not exercising, eating rubbish foods, going to sleep at 2am or skipping catch ups with friends and family. 

Back to Henry.

We explored whether Henry was committing to any of the fundamentals. He wasn’t doing any of them. Here lay the biggest opportunity for Henry. Behaviour change is hard. It is infinitely harder when you are depressed. There were a lot of things we could focus on but when things are tough, it is silly to try to change everything at once. For Henry, we decided that exercise would move the needle forward the most effectively. He loved basketball so we built his exercise routine around basketball. At the start, it was difficult but he started to commit to exercise on most days of the week. He started to see an improvement within days. This reinforced his motivation to exercise. Within 4 weeks, he was playing basketball twice a week and riding his bike every day. Henry was beginning to come out of his shell. He didn’t stop there. Exercise became a catalyst for positive change in all aspects of his life. He started to attend dinner at the dining table with his parents and sister. He initiated catch ups with his friends. He started sleeping before midnight instead of at 3am. Lastly, he threw out any marijuana he had left over along with his previously beloved bong. Within a few months, exercise became the first domino that gave him his life back. Of course he still had some bad days but he was back to being that social, happy person that was the life of the party. 

This is not a fluke. We have enough data to undeniably confirm the benefits of exercise on our mental health. In a systematic review conducted by the University of South Australia that looked at 1039 trials and 128,119 participants, they found that ‘physical activity is extremely beneficial to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress’. 

Here are the specifics. 

1) All modes of physical activity, whether aerobic, resistance, mixed aerobic and resistance or yoga showed beneficial effects. 

2) Moderate to vigorous levels of activity (e.g. huffing, puffing, sweating) were better than low intensity (e.g. walking).

3) Short to mid-duration bouts of exercise seem to be better than longer durations. All durations are helpful though.

4) Resistance exercise was better for depression.

5) Yoga or a focus on mind-body exercises (e.g. walking) were more effective for anxiety.

Moving the body sets off a cascade of physiological changes such as the increased availability of serotonin and norepinephrine (which is literally what many of the antidepressants do), reduced systemic inflammation as well as increased expression of various neurotrophic factors. 

I have heard every excuse in the book. Too busy. Too tired. Too unfit (the irony is overwhelming). Too cold. Too hot. Too lazy. Too sleepy.

The most common excuse? “I don’t like it”.

My answer is always the same. “Liking it is not a requirement”.  

We all have to do things we don’t like. You probably don’t like paying taxes. You do it anyway (I hope). Treat exercise like that.

Dr G prescription:

1) Something is better than nothing. Commit to a minimum absolute must (e.g. 1 push up, walking to the letterbox, 1 squat, 1 stretch)

2) Consistency (doing it often) trumps intensity (doing more or doing it fast). Commit to moving daily. 

3) Once you are consistent, add intensity.

4) Work up a sweat and get to the point of huffing and puffing when possible. 

5) Do it for the rest of your life. 

Much love to you and of course myself,

Dr G

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