The impact of physical fitness
Year-round physical activity not only improves our physical performance on the job, it can also help us build and maintain mental performance, health and resilience. For example, studies have shown that active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than inactive people.
In general, physical activity can:
- Help our bodies handle stress better
- reduce tension, and ease aggression and frustration
- Improve mood and provide an increased sense of wellbeing
- Reduce symptoms or risk of depression and protect mental health
- Help you get better quality of sleep and improve energy levels and concentration during the day
Physical activity helps your body and overall health in many other ways too, such as:
- Helping control weight
- Promotes lower blood pressure
- Reducing the risk of heart disease
- Reducing the risk for type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
- Reducing the risk of some cancers
- Strengthening bones, muscles and joints
- Increasing your chances of living longer
It’s also worth remembering that your health is critical to the wellbeing of your family. The more active you are, the more likely your kids will follow suit.
How much physical activity do you need to do?
Basically, any physical activity is good, even brief physical efforts – like standing up and stretching or walking up the stairs - can help clear your mind. It is best to choose exercise that you enjoy, getting into the habit of exercising on a regular basis—three to four times a week, if possible.
Even just thinking about exercise activates the same neuronal systems in your brain as actually exercising. Research comparing the effects of mentally exercising (imagery) to the effects of actually exercising found that mental exercise creates changes to the brain and improves physical performance. Visualising and mentally rehearsing your performance can improve performance on the field.
A loss of interest in physical activity is common when mental health is compromised, but evidence suggests that exercise can in fact improve mental health and reduce anxiety and depression. This may be due to physiological responses to increased blood flow to the brain, but exercise also provides distraction, increased self-efficacy, and social interaction.
We’ve all heard that exercise causes chemicals in the brain to be released that make you feel good, and it’s true. Thirty minutes of moderate intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, 3 times per week, is sufficient for mental health benefits.
And you can break the 30 minutes up in to three 10-minute blocks if that works better for you.
Some basic principles
When training, it’s common for people to focus on strength and endurance, it’s important that other aspects of fitness are not overlooked. Keep in mind these tips as part of your physical fitness efforts:
The Ministry of Health recommends people aim for a minimum of 2 ½ hours of moderate (or 1 ¼ hours of vigorous) physical activity spread throughout a week.
With consistent training the body will adapt to a particular exercise, which is why it is important to vary the routine. This will also help you stay motivated. Consider cross-training, adding new activities and exercises, or just doing something physical for fun.
For extra health benefits, aim for a mix of aerobic (e.g. brisk walking) and muscle strengthening (e.g. resistance training) activities at a minimum of 30-60mins, 3-5 times a week.
When we become much more active than usual, the risk of injury goes up. If you’re just getting into high-intensity aerobic exercises like running, it's important to pace yourself and not overdo it
Fuel your body to optimize your health and performance. What you eat and drink is just as important as when and how much you eat and drink. Eating more calories than you burn will increase body weight, but consuming too few calories will likely cause you to feel tired and perform poorly.
This means drinking enough water/fluids before, during and after exercising. Experts generally recommend drinking about 6-8 cups (1.5-2L) of water throughout the day. However if you are exercising or playing sport you will need more. The best test of adequate hydration is that you go to the toilet regularly and your urine is pale yellow – if it is dark yellow you are not drinking enough water.
And remember, if you have a health condition or have been injured, talk to your doctor about an appropriate fitness programme for you.
Improving your physical activity
Consider the following when looking to improve your physical fitness:
Injuries can occur during fitness training, but there are a few easy steps we can take to lower our risk of getting hurt:
- Listen to Your Body. Increasing physical activity levels suddenly (in volume and/or intensity), extending duration and not allowing sufficient time for recovery can all lead to overtraining and injury. Listen to the warning signs your body gives you. If your body is tired or too sore from a previous workout, take a day off, cross-train or work out at a much lower intensity.
- Warm Up. Every workout should begin with a warm up, which is necessary to prepare the body for exercise by increasing heart rate and blood flow to working muscles.
- Cool Down. Every workout should end with a cool down. Time spent performing five to 10 minutes of low-intensity cardio activity followed by stretching immediately after the workout will decrease muscle soreness and aid in recovery, both helping to prepare the body for the next workout.
- Stretch. Once the muscles are warm, they become more elastic and are ready to be stretched. Flexibility prepares the muscles, tendons and joints for work by allowing them to move freely through a full active range of motion. The more prepared the body is, the less likely it is to get injured.
No one knows which kinds of exercise regimes are most effective so the best type of exercise is the type that you will do. If you like walking, walk, if you think you might like a team sport, try a team sport, if you like surfing, surf. Whatever it is, do it regularly and do it mindfully.
The key is to find something you like and that you can stick with.
- Be prepared.
- Diary exercise like you would any other important meeting.
- Make sure you’ve got comfortable shoes/clothes and shower gear if you need it.
- Build physical activity in to your daily life.
- Plan to do more jobs around the garden and house.
- Walk/cycle to work or park further away and walk the last bit of your commute.
- Take the stairs.
- Walk to see a colleague rather than calling or emailing.
- Have walking meetings.
- ‘Play’ more – with the kids, with the dog, or on your own.
- Get supported.
- Create a buddy system with friends, family or colleagues to encourage you and maybe actually exercise with you.
- Set a goal – it might be to walk 3 times next week, or to run the New York Marathon next year!
First ask yourself “have you really not got time”, or is something else getting in the way? If work, a dislike of exercise, poor organisation or family commitments are getting in the way, take a step back and look for solutions.
If time is still an issue, HIIT might be for you. Low-volume high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is emerging as a time-efficient exercise strategy for improving cardiorespiratory fitness, and for controlling blood sugar levels and hypertension. In addition, the mental health scores of patients with chronic schizophrenia improved significantly following an 8 week programme of HIIT training.
HIIT involves short but intense bursts of anaerobic exercise, alternated with less intense recovery periods. If you’re short of time, or want to try something different, try the “Little Method” 3 times a week. If you’re a regular exerciser but find yourself even shorter on time, try the Tabata method.
The Little Method
This method is for people who are at intermediate level of fitness, with 30 minutes avaialble to exercise and who want flexible routines:
- Step 1. 3 minute warm up
- Step 2. 60 seconds fast cycling at max resistance
- Step 3. 75 seconds slow cycling at low resistance
- Step 4. Repeat for a total of 12 cycles/27 minutes
This method is for people who are extremely fit with very little time:
- Step 1. 3 minute warm up
- Step 2. 20 seconds sprinting
- Step 3. 10 seconds walking
- Step 4. Repeat sprint/walk cycle for a total of 8 cycles