Getting the right balance

How the Covid-19 Pandemic can change our relationship with exercise.

When I did a short poll amongst our clients about how lockdown had impacted on their exercise and activity levels, there was pretty much a 50:50 split between those who had significantly reduced their exercise levels, and those who had significantly increased their activity levels. With almost no one saying that their activity levels had stayed the same.

Too little?

I think this broadly mirrors the way that people deal with sudden change, stress and anxiety. For some people, retreating into their shell, choosing to go inwards and ‘hunker’ down is their natural reaction. The stress causes difficulty with decision-making, problem solving and productivity, and so for many people there simply isn’t the energy or inclination to exercise when their bodies are simply on ‘survival mode’. Often the need to protect yourself from harm, alongside the current government guidance on staying home unless you HAVE to go out, and staying 2m away from other people can certainly reinforce the message that doing less is how you keep safe.
This then becomes a difficult habit to break. When you step out of your normal routine and stop focusing on your automatic health habits (walking to work and back five times a week for example), it can become VERY difficult to get yourself out of that health rut.
Many people don’t realise how fast muscles weaken (atrophy) with the lack of regular overload/use. Within just 5 days of disuse, muscle mass declines by ~4%, and muscle strength by ~9%. Insulin sensitivity also significantly reduces (related to Diabetes). And we know that the health benefits of regular exercise bring with it improved sleep, better immune system function, reduced stress levels, better digestion (and a happy gut micro biome which then feeds into our Serotonin hormone levels). Not to mention the feeling of accomplishment when you have completed something hard that you didn’t initially want to do but that made you smile about once it was over! Self-efficacy, achievement, accomplishment, community, connectedness…these are just some of the benefits for regular exercise.

Too much?

Conversely, the other group of clients who have drastically increased their exercise and activity levels, have found that it is their main solution and coping mechanism for the stress and anxiety that the Covid Pandemic has caused. With so much extra time on our hands (if you have been furloughed for example) it can be very easy to suddenly focus all of your attention on doing more and more exercise every day. We know the mood enhancing benefits of exercise, and how that helps us to manage our Cortisol (stress hormone) levels. It also releases Endorphins, which promote feelings of elation, and having goals and fitness challenges also brings with it a sense of accomplishment and achievement. Now ALL of those things are beneficial in uncertain times, but what I’m finding time and time again is that people are going to extremes.
As a Physio, I have started to treat more and more clients with overuse injuries, tendon related pain, joint pain from rapid progression of exercise load and muscle injuries from too much unaccustomed exercise (I’ve treated two knee injuries from sudden HIIT sessions done at home and Climbers on Hangboards at home every day as two examples). The other issue in this global pandemic is that we need to be prioritising our health and immune system function. Now many of the people who have rapidly increased their exercise volume, have failed to factor in the amount of rest and recovery time needed. Nor have they adapted their nutritional requirements. This then causes fatigue, reduced immune function response, and can manifest as ‘Over Training Syndrome’. It’s like driving your car at 100mph every day for 3 months in 3rd gear (not a good idea in case you were wondering!).

OK, now what?

So if you have noticed that you are either doing too much, or too little exercise the first thing to do is to spend some time reflecting on this. Ask yourself how you are best serving yourself right now? Can you be your own best friend and consider if the type of exercise (or lack of) is the best that you can do right now? And if it honestly is the best that you can do, then GREAT! You can drop any guilt you feel. BUT if you know that your future self would thank you if you changed things even slightly then that’s when you should reflect on the following.

1. Set yourself just ONE wellness/exercise/healthy habit goal that you can achieve and put a time limit on it. The type of goal you set will depend on whether you need to do MORE or LESS exercise than you currently are.

2. Spend time reflecting on what you are using to deal with your stress and is it healthy? Can you identify what your triggers are and what your ‘go-to’ response is? For example do you reach for an unhealthy snack, or do you opt for negative self-talk?

3. Can you sit with your uncomfortable feelings/pain/anxiety and recognise them but not analyse them? This is called Mindfulness.

4.. How can you balance out the types of activities you do to be kinder to yourself? Maybe you can swap another HIIT session or run for a Pilates or Yoga class? Or if you are not exercising enough, then why not join an outdoor exercise class that is meeting the current social distancing guidelines? That way you get the exercise and community/socialisation aspect, which improves your accountability.

Getting the balance right is about first acknowledging where you currently are. It’s not a competition, its simply about approaching exercise and fitness in a more rounded way to optimize your health, reduce stress, injuries and pain, and feel BETTER!
Thanks for reading.
Jennifer Searle
Specialist Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist (MSc Sports Injury)
Spine Extended Scope Practitioner.

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