Happy New Year and Happy New Lockdown y'all. 2021 might not be the sweet release from 2020 that we had all pinned our hopes on, but given that the subject matter of every single conversation I ever have with anyone is coronavirus related (and for that reason, utterly depressing), I wanted to write about something a bit more uplifting! I was given a book called 'The Joy of Movement' by Kelly McGonigal for Christmas and it has inspired an entirely new way of thinking and just being, so I thought I would share some of my recent revelations with you.
McGonigal explains, through biology, evolutionary theories, philosophy, neuroscience, psychology (basically all of the -ologies), why movement is not just something that brings people joy and fulfilment, but why it's central to human existence. Over lockdown especially, one of the most repeated pieces of advice for maintaining good wellbeing was to keep exercising in some form or another. Gyms are closed, but people have taken to new ways of moving; walking, cycling, home workouts, yoga videos on YouTube, Zoom classes, Joe Wicks PE lessons, dance parties. wild swimming even. For many people, the focal reason behind this flurry of activity was simply to avoid putting on loads of weight during lockdown. It was also nice to get a change of scenery and stretch the legs, but there's much more to it.
It's time to go back to our roots. Nope, not Hemel Hempstead General Hospital where I was born (fortunately - I went back last year for a blood test and it's gone downhill). We're talking up to a million years ago when humans were living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Whilst it's a bit hard to imagine now (having spent a few hours on the sofa happily watching RuPaul), humans have spent most of their existence as a species living outside. We evolved to be endurance athletes - it's how our species survived. Compared to other primates, we have very specific skeletal adaptations that promote running: thighbones 50% longer, foot bones that are flatter and more rigid, and a special ligament that connects our skull to our spine to prevent our heads bobbing around when we run (shared by horses, wolves, dogs and other running species, but no other primate). Our bodies spent millennia changing and adapting to suit a very physical lifestyle, and so did our brain chemistry.
We are genetically designed to be social creatures. Aristotle said this back in the day but have you ever really thought about what it actually means? I hadn't although I've had a bit more time on my hands recently to start pondering the great philosophies of life (in between the episodes of RuPaul). However, when you think about it and the whole point of evolution, it makes complete sense (unless you don't believe in evolution, in which case it won't). Our brains are wired to seek out company, to rely on support and interaction with other human beings, to be in close proximity to others. When we were hunting stuff and gathering other stuff, we would only survive if we were cooperating with others. Humans stick together. Already it's easy to see why so many people are struggling with loneliness and isolation during this pandemic. We all are - it's a biological response to being separated from others. Our brains can be affected by the change in circumstances, and things like stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems can result. That's why it is imperative that we stay connected to one another in whatever ways we have available to us.
The part of McGonigal's book that I found most fascinating focused on the biological and chemical changes that movement has on our brains. And indeed, what lack of movement means for our brains. As already mentioned, we evolved as athletes. Being strong, fast and agile is how we survived for hundreds and thousands of years. However, in the last couple of hundred years, we have gone from spending the vast majority of our time outdoors, or at least active, to a sedentary indoor lifestyle. Is there any wonder why so many people are suffering from mental health conditions, or feel lost or unfulfilled? We have made such a sudden and dramatic departure from our natural state that our brains have not had time to adapt. I know this sounds a bit hippy, but imagine doing the same thing to another animal species - animals get stressed, withdrawn or even violent, when taken out of their natural environment, and animals born outside of the wild (in sanctuaries, or as pets) have often lost so much of their natural instinct that they wouldn't survive in the wild if they were to be set free. Basically, we gotta start moving again peeps.
It's also so interesting to look at the measurable effects that movement has on our brains. Depression for example, can be treated with anti-depressants, but it can also be prevented and treated with exercise. If you'd said this to me when I was at my lowest points, I would probably have thrown a chair at you, but movement has been scientifically proven to have a 'clinically relevant and statistically significant effect' on depression. In one particular study, a sample group of clinically depressed adults were either given a sertraline prescription, a group exercise programme (running together for 30 mins 3 times per week), or a combination of both. The results showed that the antidepressants reduced symptoms more quickly at the beginning, but by 16 weeks there were no significant differences among treatment groups. Furthermore, a 10-month follow-up of those participants revealed that the exercise group (70%) had significantly lower rates of depression than those in the sertraline (48%) or the combination groups (54%). The conclusion: exercise was as effective as medication (and more effective long term) for reducing symptoms of depression across this sample group of adults. I generally think of medicine/drugs to be the one-stop solution to getting back to health and much of this belief is fuelled by the pharmaceutical industry (worth $1.3 trillion). But listen: 'The average daily step count required to induce feelings of anxiety and depression and decrease satisfaction with life is 5,649.' In the UK, the average daily step count is between 3,000-4,000 according to the NHS...
There's so much more to McGonigal's book and I highly recommend that you read it. But the thing that I loved most was how it prompted me to re-centre my thoughts about who I am. Not as an individual so much, but as a living being. It's so easy to get wrapped up in the mess and chaos of life (as I write this, Trump has just announced he won't be attending Biden's inauguration, and the UK covid deaths have reached a new peak). It might occasionally feel liberating to take a step back, remind yourself of your humanity and what has come before us. Not in an existential crisis sort of way, but just as a way to ease some of the pressure that we put on ourselves and on one another to fulfil certain expectations or achieve specific things. We are human. Nothing more, nothing less. Homo sapiens. And we were made to be outside together in our tribes. Running, walking, climbing, hunting and gathering. Reconnect with the reality of what it means to be a precious little member of our rather exceptional species. And then everything else might become a little more manageable.
I haven't done this in any of my other blog posts but my vague New Year's Resolution was to keep moving forwards with my PT business! I just wanted to remind you all that I'm still running my HIIT, FIT and LIT workouts on Wednesday and Sunday evenings at 6pm. It's on Zoom and anyone/everyone is welcome to come along. The link is the same every time and you don't need to book in advance, just turn up here: https://tinyurl.com/y5vj8f82. I'm also offering Zoom PT sessions so if you are sick of YouTube workouts or struggling to motivate yourself to do them, let me know and we can come up with a plan! Finally, I'm also available to deliver workshops in a more professional setting. I deliver sessions/talks on body image, eating disorders, and finding a positive relationship with fitness and exercise. If you'd like me to speak to your colleagues at work or in your school, please get in touch!
That's all from me for now. Thanks for reading but now it's time to get moving!