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Those times when “being healthy”…. isn’t. How to integrate self-care into our exercise goals

Those times when “being healthy”…. isn’t. How to integrate self-care into our exercise goals

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Lucy is a 25-year old working in her first job post-university. She’s always been an active person, but has never been confident with the way she looks. She considers herself to be pretty healthy, though. In the past year, she has gotten into more intense forms of cardio work-outs, and she makes sure to exercise most days, as well as to do yoga a few times a week. That’s good for body and mind, right…?  When she doesn’t have time to fit in exercise into her day, she gets antsy and feels irritable and guilty. Doesn’t that happen to everyone?

As a psychologist working with individuals aiming to improve their mental health, the topic of exercise often comes up in session. We have all heard that we “should” do some form of physical activity in our week (I’m going to come back to that word later). Indeed, the benefits of exercise on physical and mental health are well established (e.g., Penedo & Dahn, 2005, Anchor, 2010); better mood, reduced stress, increased motivation, better physical health across a range of measures, and an overall better quality of life.

But how can we approach exercise with an attitude of self-care, rather than obligation? And how can we notice when we’re taking it too far? Some clients describe moments when focusing on fitness and health can feel like a compulsion. It can be something that we feel we have to do (otherwise we might feel guilty, for example) - rather than something that feels good. It can feel obsessive and rigid, rather than a way of caring for our bodies and minds. The messages that we get from social media and general culture can be confusing, too. The rise of extreme fitness trends and Instagram-style fitness celebrities and workshops put forward the notion that fitness is about intensity, and pushing your body to its limit. And hidden in there too (often not so subtly) is a focus on body image - we “should” be strong, muscular, and intense in our dedication to physical fitness. As described in this recent article in the Walrus, messages about fitness have changed, but the focus on body image remains. For many adherents of extreme fitness, the message remains that, “we would be happier if our bodies were different”.

So how to pursue exercise in a way that is caring towards both your mind and body?

1. ADOPT AN ATTITUDE OF SELF-CARE

To quote this lovely blog, which discusses focusing on health in a mindful and balanced way: “Try paying attention to how you feel, the signals your body is sending you, and what would truly serve the needs you have.”

Self-care is a simple concept, but one that is often difficult to prioritise, given all the competing demands in our day. But the basic idea is that there are certain core needs that should be met in order for us to feel both mentally and physically healthy. Namely:

  • Stay hydrated - drink water
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Be physically active
  • Go outside
  • Take a shower
  • Sleep
  • Spend time with friends and family

In essence, self-care has some basic ingredients, but the “fine tuning” is unique to every person. It basically means taking some time to make sure that you are taking care of you (check out this link for some examples shared by individuals).

2. ALLOW YOURSELF TO CHOOSE

Identifying our self-care needs involves tuning in with our bodies and allowing ourselves to think about what would truly be in our best interest. Importantly, this involves allowing yourself to choose what you need in that particular moment. Sounds easy, but think about how often you end up feeling that you “should” do something else instead (is it just me…?)

For instance, if you’re feeling tired and stressed after a long day at work, what would serve your needs best? Would exercise help you get rid of some of that pent-up energy, and boost your mood? Or, some days, do you feel that what you really need is to sleep? This may mean choosing to go to bed early, and cancelling some of your plans (not always easy!). When you notice that your knee is hurting (a personal example of mine, following a knee surgery), does it need rest? Or, on the contrary, do I need to get to the gym and do my knee exercises? When you notice that you’re feeling under pressure and irritable at work, can you say no to a few requests and allow yourself to complete your existing tasks as best you can? And could you do some activity that will allow you to feel good and direct your focus back to you and your health (some laps in the pool, a dance class, a jog)?

The key is to become familiar with your body’s signals and needs, and allow yourself to choose what self-care would look like for you at that time - be that going for a jog, taking some time to read, spending time with loved ones, or simply going to bed. Being honest and flexible with oneself is key here. Feeling that you “should” do something is a warning sign to ask yourself if it is truly in your best interests. (Note: It’s worth pointing out here that self-care does not mean being selfish, or considering only your needs. It’s not “me first”, but rather “me too”, and ensuring that you maximise your own resources in order to be able to engage with what’s important to you - check out Andrea’s blog for more on this topic).

For those who have difficulties identifying their self-care needs, check out this fun, interactive guide).

3. IDENTIFY WHY EXERCISE IS IMPORTANT TO YOU

Read Jodie’s awesome 3-part blog posts which discuss identifying and connecting to your values, and figuring out how they can be pursued on a daily basis. Pay special attention to self-criticism (“you need to lose weight”) or “shoulds” that leave you feeling coerced (i.e., the stick, rather than the carrot). Jodie breaks this down into figuring out your WHYS, WHATS, and HOWS. This includes the most challenging part - how to keep your self-care habits going!

Follow us on Instagram @connectepsychology for your daily connect to self-care.


Maeve O'Leary-Barrett is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business: New York.

Penedo F. J., & Dahn, J. R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Curr Opin Psychiatry;18(2):189-93.

Rupert, P. A., & Kent, J. S. (2007). Gender and work setting differences in career-sustaining behaviors and burnout among professional psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38(1), 88-96. 

Want to maximize your potential? Get happier!

Want to maximize your potential? Get happier!

A common misconception in our society is that success leads to happiness. It's not uncommon to hear people make comments such as: “If I was able to get that promotion, things would be perfect”, or “Things will be great when I finish school and get that job”, “If I could just lose 10 pounds, I’d be happy” or a line I heard a lot in grad school “I’ll be happy when I finally finish this thesis and get it defended” (OK, I admit, I was guilty of this one a few years back!). The problem with making our happiness conditional on achieving these types of goals is that once we reach the goal, we replace is with something else so it becomes a vicious chase (not to mention we are unlikely to enjoy the process!).

In his book, the Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor (2010) does an amazing job of summarizing years of research in the area of positive psychology that proves that this idea that success leads to happiness is just not true. In fact, the research demonstrates the contrary: happiness and a more positive attitude actually breed success (Lyubormirsky, King, Diener, 2005)! “When we are happy - when our mindset and mood are positive - we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful” (Achor, p.37) Seven principles are outlined in the book on how to increase our happiness, satisfaction and ultimately our performance and success. So, what can we do to be happier and more positive in our day-to-day lives? Research has demonstrated that we have more control over our emotional well being than it was believed in the past (Lyubormirsky, Sheldon & Schade, 2005), so here are some ideas taken from Achor’s Happiness Advantage -- a few things to try!

Meditation

We are hearing more and more about the benefits of mediation in the media and it is becoming more and more popular. Achor suggests that just 5 minutes a day of mindful breathing can be helpful and that it is one of the best tools to increase our happiness. Studies have shown that a regular mediation practice increases happiness and lowers stress (Shapiro, Schwartz & Santerre, 2005). If the idea of starting a meditation practice sounds intimidating, there are many great apps (ex. Headspace) that can help, so why not give it a try?!

Exercise

We’ve all heard that exercise releases endorphins which are feel good chemicals, but Achor points out that exercise can also help us feel more motivated and decrease levels of stress. Try to get moving doing something you enjoy, and why not invite a friend to join you? (Achor also stresses the benefits of strong social relationships on our mood).

Plan ahead

Sometimes the anticipation of an event is often a source of great pleasure. Achor suggests making a conscious effort to plan things we enjoy in advance and then reminding ourselves about the upcoming event for a quick mood boost. Studies have found that just thinking about something you’re looking forward to can increase levels of endorphins; also know as “feel good” hormones. A great excuse to book a vacation in advance!

Create a positive environment

Our physical environment has a big impact on our mood. Try getting out during your day for a short walk and a breath of fresh air, place a photo from a family vacation you enjoyed in your office, or bring some fresh flowers from your garden to work.

Acts of kindness

Research has demonstrated that people who engage in acts of kindness report feeling happier (Post, 2005; Lyubomirsky, 2007). Achor suggests trying to make a conscious effort to engage in random acts of kindness for a quick mood boost. Why not do something thoughtful for a colleague or a friend today (send a kind email to a colleague or friend, treat someone to coffee)? A cute example taken from author Jane McGonigal’s book “Superbetter”: Text a friend asking them how their day is going on a scale of 1-10. Then ask them how you can bring their day up a few notches, for example from a 3 to a 5 or a 7 to a 9.

Mind your spending

Studies have shown that spending money on experiences, particularly those shared in the company of others has a more positive effect on our mood than buying objects or things (Frank, 2000). Spending on others (ex. treating a friend to coffee) also has a more positive impact on our mood.  

Find your strength

Achor points out that we all have something we’re good at. What we might not know is that whenever we perform that task, we get a mood boost. The same is true when we use one of our character strengths. Achor shares that he loves to learn, so he tries to incorporate learning into tasks that he finds less interesting. Such a great way to change your mindset!

Practice Gratitude

Try to be mindful about moments you’re grateful for. Make a conscious effort to note five things at the end of the day that you are grateful for, anything from your morning cup of coffee, to the sound of birds chirping, to the restful sleep you had.

I hope you enjoy trying to bring more happiness into your daily lives with these “Happiness Advantage” tips. The fun doesn’t end here though! Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post with more ideas from the book. You can also check out Achor’s TedTalk here:


Andrea Martin is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Achor, Shawn. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business: New York.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803–855.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111–131.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want. New York, NY: Penguin Group Inc.

McGonical, Jane. (2015). SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient--Powered by the Science of Games. London: Harper Collins.

Post, Stephen. G. (2005). Altruism, happiness, and health: it’s good to be good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 66-77.

Shapiro, S. L., Schwartz, G. E., & Santerre, C. (2005). Meditation and positive psychology. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 632-645). New York: Oxford USA Trade.