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Katelyn Sander

Let's talk. Let's listen. Let's try to help.

Living Well

Written by: Meg Sharp, Wellbeing Consultant, Cambridge Group of Clubs

I was listening to one of my favourite Canadian Radio Personalities on CBC the other morning. He’s a clever, well-grounded, optimistic guy. “These are dark times for Canadians…” he said.

To be clear, we’re going to focus on all the practical, positive things you can do to start feeling better today. But, let’s sit with that statement for a moment. While troubling, it’s not exactly wrong:

  • The days are physically darker this time of year.
  • Over 500,000 Canadians are unable to go to work due to mental health issues (Mental Health Commission of Canada).
  • 50% of Canadians over 40 are currently experiencing mental health issues (Canadian Mental Health Association)
  • While we’re less worried about getting COVID, more than 20.9% of us are moderately to severely anxious, 20.1% report feeling depressed, and 21.3 lonely (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). 
  • It’s become increasingly difficult to access timely help and support. More than 50% who are struggling are not getting the help they need (Mental Health Research Canada). 
  • It’s very likely these already high numbers are not capturing the full picture. Despite great strides, there remain stigma associated with mental health challenges. 

Struggling with mental challenges is often an uphill battle. For many, it’s gotten worse the past few years.

We want to bring to the table what we know to be effective steps you and those you care about can take today. As undertaking any course of action can be overwhelming, we offer sound evidence to bolster your motivation and a number of effective strategies to try and make the journey a little easier.

The overarching strategy is simply this: Move as often as you can.

It’s been proven, with more evidence surfacing every single day, that exercise – of all types and kinds – helps overcome mental health challenges.

  • We are beginning to understand how the brain structure of people who struggle with mental health challenges exhibits specific patterns. And that exercise – including high intensity cardio, outdoor walking, and mindful yoga – specifically targets key areas of the brain and creates changes that make you – both immediately and over the long term – feel and cope better.
  • Movement lasting as short as 60 seconds changes cortisol levels and reduces stress.
  • Exercise boosts self-esteem. And we all have experienced how much easier everything can seem when we feel good deep in our bones.
  • Exercise is both calming and empowering. It can serve as a distraction and be mindful movement facilitating creative thinking and problem solving.
  • It can help us shift our identities so we better recognize what we CAN do. Even in the face of the darkest of days we can make it.

And let’s be completely honest: While adding exercise to our days should be as second nature as brushing your teeth, in reality it’s not that simple. Committing to regular physical activity – despite being well versed in its myriad of benefits – remains elusive for many. It’s particularly challenging for those who struggle with mental health challenges. 

It’s a painful irony of human nature that when we feel terrible it’s so much harder to make the choices that would benefit us. A huge part of the challenge – I think – is the way we glamourize exercise and celebrate physical transformations over mental and emotional change. People go nuts when “Jay” loses 25 pounds. No one notices when “Sien” feels great getting out of bed in the morning, feels less stress at work, and is able to help their kids with their homework with patience and laughter.

We also, as a society, can over simplify or play down how hard it can be to start and continue to exercise. And so beautiful reader – for yourself or for someone you care about – we share a slew of simple truths and strategies to help overcome the barriers and to get moving. 

  • The body and brain love repetition, and aren’t too fussed how long you spent or what you did. Our brains and muscles simply remember that we did it. And that makes it easier to do it again. Ultimately, we even start to crave it.
  • Everything counts. 30 seconds, 3 minutes, 17 minutes. Whatever you can do on any given day, know that it helps
  • If possible, schedule it in. Make it a priority.
  • All forms of movement and exercise have benefits. Choose what’s realistic. And ideally what you enjoy. 

  • The body and brain transform more effectively when we push a little out of our comfort zone. That could mean trying a new skill or pushing a little bit harder. Do this once or twice a week to encourage more adaptation.
  • Being treated with compassion eases depressive and anxious symptoms. This is most powerful when we are compassionate with ourselves. Have you ever berated yourself for “not moving enough”, “being weak or lazy”? Imagine speaking to someone you love that way. Such words could be considered demoralizing, cruel even. They don’t inspire someone to keep moving!
  • Starting today, change how you speak to yourself: “I was tired and overwhelmed and I still managed to get out and walk 6 minutes.” “I was nervous to try strength training, but I went to that class and gave it my best.” “Going for a run was too much, so I stretched instead and feel great.” These statements not only reflect the truth, they are the kinds of things that will encourage you to keep going.

  • Focus on how exercise makes you feel. Goals including weight loss, increased speed, endurance, power, and changing shape take months and even years to achieve. These belong firmly planted on your back burner. 
  • Make your BIGGEST goal about feeling better, calmer, more alive, more focused, clearer, more fulfilled, more centered… Because how you feel matters. And when YOU decide it matters, and you focus on that, you become more attuned to how powerful exercise really is when it comes to our mind, our brain, our emotions.  
  • You only need one reason to exercise: Your mental wellbeing. It may not make you feel better every day. But it will make a difference. Start moving. And don’t give up.

As with any change it can take time for the benefits to kick in. Know that once they do, the exercise becomes easier, more enjoyable, and exerts even more healing powers. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Especially at the beginning where the pitch is often the steepest.

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