Flexibility is key when promoting fitness for mental health

Posted On By Diana Ballon

Published with Dalton Associates in July 2021

No one need defend their interest in fitness. Its benefits for longevity and mental and physical health are irrefutable. Fitness has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, help people manage their stress, sleep better, and cope with the effects of trauma and other difficult experiences.

But an important part of helping people exercise more is to encourage a fitness regime that they enjoy and are most likely to follow. As Fitness for Mental Health founder Jodie Becker says, adaptability is key.

“Sometimes they [clients they work with at a psychiatric facility] are chock full of energy, and then it’s like, yep, let’s kick butt, and do a really intensive high impact workout and sweat,” says Becker. “Other times, people are tired, and then mindfulness or stretching may be a better approach,” she says. “For some people, even sitting, standing up, and sitting down again repeatedly for three minutes can work to increase their heart rate,” says Becker.

Being flexible with time of day is also important. Becker says that some clients who are on heavy doses of psychiatric medications may feel extremely tired in the morning, so are more productive in the afternoon.

Becker’s started her non-profit organization Fitness for Mental Health [fitforthemind.ca] in 2016 after she was fired from a corporate job for a mental illness.

Now several years in, she has a team of kinesiologists and fitness experts trained in working compassionately with people with mental health problems. As well as being fitness professionals, they bring skills in listening, empathy and positive communication to their work with clients — whether these are people in hospitals, group homes or simply anyone else who wants one on one support improve their fitness.

Although their “magic prescription” has been 30 minutes of medium to high intensity fitness three times a week, based on the existing research, Becker says they have found – at least anecdotally – that even one walk in nature a week can boost well-being.

When I ask Becker if she sees fitness as treatment or prevention for mental health, she says that it depends. “We all have mental health.” Fitness is about “improving quality of life” and not changing the body.

Forms of fitness for health

When looking for fitness inspiration, I turn to Kirkland Shave as my guide. Shave is a certified life coach and the program director and lead hiking guide at Mountain Trek, a B.C. fitness retreat and health spa and the most awarded health retreat in Canada. He is also someone who often hikes barefoot and doesn’t believe that age needs to deter anyone from doing an activity they enjoy — as long as they stay healthy and fit. In addition to being fit, this includes focusing on nutrition, sleep, detoxification and mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Shave describes the four elements of fitness – cardio endurance, strength training, core training and flexibility. And he believes that finding balance means meeting all of these areas, so doing exercise that works your heart, lungs and circulation; builds strength (push ups are great for this); strengthens your abdominal, pelvic and back and chest muscles; and increases your flexibility (for instance, by doing yoga and stretching.)

But setting realistic and achievable goals is key to doing a workout that you will most likely be able to maintain.

For some, it may mean walking up and down the stairs if they are in an apartment or somewhere where there isn’t much space to work out. Or it could mean running, cycling, swimming, walking the dog, hiking, going to an aerobics class, doing yoga in a park — or a combination of these activities.

Certainly, Covid has shone light on the importance of being in green space, which for many of us may be easier to find in a city part than a drive into the country. Covid has also forced many of us to turn to online workouts and apps that, although lacking in the social aspects of an in-person class workout, do allow us to connect in a remote environment. Fortunately, many of these classes are free — from Yoga with Adriene; to yoga videos and at home-workouts, run training plans and mindfulness tools provided on the Community section of the Lululemon website.

Finding someone to work out with may also be key, particularly those of us who are extroverted, and feed off the distraction and enjoyment of spending time with friends. The social benefits may even increase longevity, as evidenced by a 2018 New York Times article by Gretchen Reynolds entitled “The Best Sport for a Longer Life? Try Tennis.”

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Since Covid, I don’t go anywhere overnight without a yoga mat thrown in the back of the car because even if stuck inside on a rainy or snowy day, I can still find a way to work out. And to help me sleep, I follow sleep guru’s prescription for winding down in the last hour before bed. That includes doing 10 or 15 minutes of yoga or meditation to clear my head before slumber.

But regardless of what we choose to work our bodies, we all need to find exercise that we enjoy and so will be more motivated to continue. And we need to start small. Some people may want to reward themselves for sticking to a fitness regimen. But for many of us, the changes in how we feel may be reward enough.