Over the past year, many of us have been forced to start new daily routines. Work commutes disappeared, gyms closed and kitchens became classrooms. A new normal began. And while many of us struggled with the massive upheaval, others thrived on all the change.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s taught us the importance of staying healthy.
Covid-19 has transformed the way we exercise. With gyms and swimming pools closed and many activities curtailed, we figured out new ways to break a sweat – from running, to on-demand HIIT classes live-streamed into the home. Lockdown inspired a fitness revolution.
Fitness equipment, weights and resistance bands had huge waitlists online. Turbo trainers, for cycling indoors, were in higher demand than loo roll – and sold out across much of Europe. Sales of actual bikes increased too, as did the sales of running shoes. And fitness apps, like Strava, Fiit and Couch to 5k, also saw a steep rise in users.
According to a survey of more than 14,000 people conducted by a third party on behalf of Fitbit in August 2020 across Europe*, during lockdown our average daily step count declined, but on the other hand, 63 per cent of respondents stated they are now more likely to prioritise their health than before lockdown. It’s fair to say that we all found new ways to keep moving.
Here, then, is how – and why – to stay fit and healthy in 2021, post-lockdown and beyond.
How exercise affects our mental health
We all know that when we take a walk in the countryside, dance to our favourite song in the kitchen or ease ourselves into a downward dog, we tend to feel better afterwards. And science agrees: exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression and negative mood, and improving self-esteem and cognitive function.
There are plenty of studies that show that regular exercise significantly reduces risks for clinical depression among people with a genetic predisposition to the condition, and also helps treat serious depression if it develops.
“Physical activity eases stress, boosts your energy levels and improves your general well-being,” says pharmacist Sultan Dajani, owner of Wainwright’s Chemist in Bishopstoke.
Regular exercise may help ease depression and anxiety by:
- Releasing feel-good endorphins. “This is partly due to changes that take place in the brain during exercise, which reduces both adrenaline and cortisol – stress-related hormones – while also stimulating levels of neurotransmitters and hormones such as endorphins and anandamide. The so-called ‘runner’s high’ is caused by a potent cocktail of hormones,” explains Dajani.
- Taking your mind off worries so you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety. “Doing any physical activity you like can have an immediate impact on your overall sense of well-being, because it distracts from negative thought spirals,” he adds.
- Improving the quality of your sleep, by making you feel more tired at the end of the day.
How meditation can improve your mental health
Like exercise, meditation also offers a whole host of health benefits, including lowered blood pressure, reduced stress, improved cognitive functioning, and mitigated depression. In fact, research shows that meditation is the UK’s favourite form of well-being therapy, with over a quarter (26 per cent) of UK adults saying they have meditated as a way to improve their mental wellbeing in the past five years.
Think of meditation as stretching, or exercise, but for your mind. A lot of the time our minds aimlessly wander – we worry, we daydream, we think about both the past and future – and meditation aims to bring us back to the present moment, to focus on the breath and offer up a toolkit for tackling stress.
Not sure where to start? Try apps such as Headspace or Calm, or try Fitbit’s mindfulness sessions on Premium within the app: you can try out guided meditations from the links of Deepak Chopra, as brief as one minute. Or you can go deeper, with guided sessions of up to 45 minutes.
If you don’t think meditation is for you, perhaps music producer and DJ Carly Wilford can change your mind. Wilford recently launched a:live – a monthly series of dynamic guided meditation tracks aimed at reimagining the way we view meditation.
“The reason I set up a:live was because I was feeling really down – I hit this wall and I was struggling to get myself out of this negative mindset,” she says. “I stopped everything that I was doing for two weeks and I made sure I did something every day for my mind, body and soul. I made sure I ate healthily, I trained every day, I started to learn the piano, and I meditated. Walking and being outside became my therapy.
“After those two weeks, I felt so much better, and I thought I needed to help other people to be able to get themselves out of that,” she continues. “At the moment, the world is very overwhelming for a lot of people – there’s so much negative news on your phone or on the TV, so we need quiet moments now more than ever.
“Meditation is really important for your mental health, whether that’s a walk with your headphones off and just appreciating what’s around you or sitting in a bath for 15 minutes. It doesn’t have to be sitting cross-legged and still.”
The benefits of controlled breathing
We all know how to breathe. Take air in, let it out, repeat 25,000 times a day. But what if we told you that the secret to your health, fitness and overall well-being lies in this most basic and overlooked aspect of your workout?
Controlled breathing has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and even help improve the immune system.
“We usually think of relaxation as lying on the sofa or sleeping, but often doing an active somatic method such as abdominal breathing or using a touch and breathe technique, touching the tapping points as you breathe on each point, for 20 minutes a day, can significantly reduce not only stress but also a range of feelings of anxiety,” says energy psychologist Poppy Delbridge.
“Deep breathing is fantastic because it takes oxygen to your brain. This stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which leads to you to a state of calm and feelings of being more grounded. You become more connected to your body (often we do not feel in our bodies when we are stressed) and as your mind quietens and the thoughts stop whirling, you begin to think more clearly and make better decisions.
“Regular breathwork is one of the easiest ways to beat stress in the modern world, because we all need to slow down and be able to jump back into our bodies,” she concludes.
Fitbit’s most advanced health smartwatch, Fitbit Sense, features a whole host of innovative features, including an electrodermal activity (EDA) sensor to help understand how your body responds to stress, which in turn can help you manage it,, as well as heart rate tracking and an on-wrist skin sensor to track your temperature variation each night.
It also has an SpO2 (blood oxygen saturation) clock face, which means you can track your SpO2 levels and measure the benefits over time of different breathing techniques, and discover which one works best for you.
1 Breathing influences your nervous system and calms your mind
Consciously changing the way you breathe sends a signal to your brain altering the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system. This has been shown to slow down your heart rate and promote feelings of calm.
2 Breathing can boost your energy levels and improve oxygen uptake
When that mid-afternoon, after-lunch slump hits, focusing on some quick breathwork can re-energise you and help to wake up both your mind and body. Fitbit users can see the value of an afternoon’s breathwork by viewing their Stress Management Score on the app.
Using 12 different measures such as levels of exertion (gauging the impact of your activities), responsiveness, which includes your heart rate and sleep patterns, you can understand your stress levels (with a high score indicating lower levels of anxiety). If you have a low score, your body may be showing signs of stress, so Fitbit can help you take steps to improve your wellbeing holistically, by improving your sleep quality, tailoring your exercise suggestions to how you’re feeling that day and providing mindfulness and breathwork materials.
3 Breathing can help your immune system
According to research from the Medical University of South Carolina, controlled breathing exercises significantly lower levels of three cytokines (types of proteins) that are associated with inflammation and stress.
When we’re stressed, our immune system becomes suppressed as our body’s lymphocytes (the white blood cells that help fight off infection) decrease. Basically, more stress equals lowered immune system, and controlled breathing equals less stress.
Four best stress-busting exercises
There’s no one-size-fits-all magic answer for stress relief – exercise won’t make stress vanish, but it can reduce some of the emotional intensity that you’re feeling. Exercising outdoors has been shown to have a greater benefit on mental health than indoors, and gentle exercises, such as yoga and tai chi, can increase the relaxation response through breathwork. Ultimately, the best stress-relieving workout for you is down to trial and error – here’s some suggestions to get started:
- Yoga: by combining a series of slow movements and held poses with concentrated deep breathing, yoga reduces stress through regulating the nervous system.
- Running: running pumps up your body’s endorphin levels, which improve your mood. It also requires no expensive equipment, and it gets you outside.
- Swimming: the repetitive nature of swimming laps can be meditative, and help to take your mind off what’s stressing you out. Instead, you can focus on something small, like stroke count.
- Boxing: controlled punching and kicking movements is a fantastic way to work out any anger and frustration. It also provides a great release of energy and endorphins.
How much exercise do I need to manage stress?
Just a small amount of exercise every day can help you manage your stress. Try to get it in early where possible, so the stress of work, family, everyday life doesn’t push exercise off your timetable.
Does the type of exercise matter?
The best stress-alleviating exercise is really the one that you will do consistently. Find something that fits into your daily routine and puts a smile on your face – whether that’s pilates or a 30-minute walk at lunch time. It’s up to you.
Achieve your holistic health goals
The past year has been a real rollercoaster, with many of us feeling more stressed as we juggle working from home with childcare and self-care. But there have also been some positives. We’ve learned some valuable lessons about how resilient we really are, and about how we de-stress – and that’s where tracking our own health data has come into its own.
Fitbit Sense can help you connect the dots between activity, sleep, nutrition and stress management, with tips on how to understand your body better and ultimately help improve your overall health and wellbeing.
For more information, visit Fitbit.com