The world of fitness, physical activity and sport can be intimidating.
Like everything these days, there’s so much information coming at us from so many sources, it’s hard to know what the best course of action is.
Shall I try CrossFit, HIIT, calisthenics, bodybuilding, kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells (I’m sure there’s other bells I’ve forgotten), circuit training, bodybuilding? Swimming? Couch to 5K? Park Run. What about team sports?
What I want to suggest in this post is that, regardless of the sports or activities you might try, what matters is movement. As well as all those activities listed above, a gentle walk taken regularly, or simply standing rather than sitting whenever you have the option – these, too, have untold benefits. Movement matters. It is vital to our overall health for so many reasons, and that’s what I want to explore today.
The simple and perhaps most obvious reason given for moving our bodies more is improved strength, flexibility, mobility and cardiovascular/respiratory endurance. Generally speaking, the more you move, the more able you are to cope with the demands of your environment (the basic definition of fitness). This could be in a sporting context or perhaps just getting to the shops, carrying your school bag or getting up and down the stairs with relative ease.
But the physical benefits are so much deeper and more powerful than that. Here’s just a few:
A stronger immune system to fight off disease
Efficient weight management
Increased bone, muscle and connective tissue density and strength
Lower blood pressure and cholesterol
Reduced chance of illness and improved recovery from it
In a recent interview with Dr Rangan Chatterjee, on the brilliant Feel Better, Live More podcast, Dr Daniel Liberman describes in more detail the effects of physical activity on the immune system in relation to vaccines and even the ageing process (yes, movement helps with that – or, rather, with anti-ageing!).
I’m fascinated with the links between physical movement and mental health. Mind and body are not separate, but intimately connected. For many, physical activity is not a ‘go to’ for fun and enjoyment. But I’m a firm believer that there is a physical pursuit or activity for everyone, and that it is the job of PE teachers and educators to help young people find them. There’s science supporting this belief: Moving our bodies elicits a chemical response (the release of ‘happy hormones’ called endorphins) which reduces pain and creates a feeling of joy (a kind of natural high). If you pursue physical activity in group or communal space, then improved social connections are yet another, proven benefit. The mental health benefits of movement go on even further:
Alleviates the negative feelings associated with anxiety, depression and negative mood
Improves sleep quality
Increases self esteem
Provides a sense of purpose
Much like my coffee in the morning, my hit of endorphins helps me function. If a schedule can be stuck to, the benefits above become so helpful and the links forged between physical and mental health become a multiplier effect.
Dr John Ratey wrote the amazing book Spark. It documents the incredible effects of different forms of exercise and movement on our brains. In the book, a project working with academically underachieving schools in the US describes how an early morning exercise program dramatically improves the academic achievement of the students.
Quick biology lesson.
The brain fires impulses to our muscles via our nerves. Any form of movement increases this impulse as well as the firing of the neurotransmitters (chemicals in the body) that facilitate this. Dopamine is one of these and specifically supports learning when it’s level is increased by helping us feel calm, relaxed and ready to learn. I’ve personally promoted this cause for many years to students in schools, especially those that see their studies as more important than their level of physical activity. How awesome is it that you can upgrade your brain by moving your body more often?! I can’t recommend the book enough (link here: Spark).
The highlights reel of how exercise improves cognition:
Increases blood flow to the brain ensuring it receives the nutrients to perform
Improves memory function by increasing the molecule BDNF (described as ‘miracle grow for the brain’) which promotes the survival of brain cells
Increases the volume of the prefrontal cortex (responsible for problem solving, creativity and perseverance)
Reading this back I find it incredible that we have the ability to improve in so many areas by simply moving our bodies more often!
A friend of mine used to say to his students that “your body is the most valuable thing you will ever own, more valuable than your phone, tablet or games console!” The general assumption is that the primary function of physical activity is to improve our fitness and, perhaps, aesthetic appearance.
But, aesthetics aside, given that movement is intrinsically related to wellbeing, surely we should all be taking it about as seriously as we can?! I like to think of it as one of the best natural medicines we can prescribe to ourselves along with a healthy diet and quality of sleep.
The takeaway? Find a physical activity, sport or movement practice you enjoy. If you like doing it alone, no problem. If you enjoy the social aspect, find a friend who likes the same activity you do. My aim is not to make anyone feel guilty about the amount of exercise they do (or don’t do). This is not a post about body sculpting, but about the mind-body connection and the undeniable benefits to both that regular movement brings. Movement is a privilege for us all to explore and enjoy.
This blog was written by Jez Belas, Sales and Engagement Director for youHQ and Life on Time Ltd. Jez has 16 years of teaching experience and until recently was Head of PE and Wellbeing at an independent school in Berkshire.