How can physical activity contribute to a better overall health?
In this ongoing pandemic, it is now more important than ever to keep our physical and mental health in optimal condition. There are many factors around us that we can not control, but what we do have control over are our decisions regarding our lifestyle and more specifically our physical activity. Research has shown that a lack of physical activity is clearly associated with an increased risk for chronic disease, an increased risk for developing a mental health disorder (such as depression) and a weakened immune system. For those reasons, physical activity and movement are extremely important during this pandemic.
With this in mind, I decided to interview a sport psychologist to understand better how physical activity can contribute to a better mental health. We also will discuss how much we should do and how we can stay motivated.
“6 Questions with”…Sports Psychologist FSP & Performance Coach Maayke van der Pluijm, owner of You-thrive.ch.
1. Can you elaborate on why regular physical activity (PA) benefits both the body and mind?
There are many health benefits from PA, I will mention a few. It improves our sleep, our mood, it may prevent weight gain, it reduces stress and anxiety and if done regularly on a moderate-intensity, it also has immune-boosting benefits that may help your body fight off infections. The WHO has identified a lack of physical activity as one of the biggest threats to our health in general and created a global plan for physical activity with important recommendations, which I will elaborate on in the next question.
2. What role you have as a sport psychologist?
As sport psychologist, I have an important role to play in making people aware of the importance of PA and support them to become or stay active. I work with clients on their motivation, defining clear and realistic objectives, dealing with emotions, and building resilience (the capacity to deal with adversity). (How I do this, I explain in question 4)
3. What exactly is the difference between “physical activity” and “exercise”. And how much of both would contribute to our (physical and mental) health?
It is important not to confuse the two. Exercise is a form of PA but planned and structured with the aim to maintain or improve our fitness. An example is following a running program because you are preparing for a 10K run. Beyond this structured exercise, activities such as playing, doing your household, going shopping, commuting from and to your work do all count as PA and have a health benefit. Besides these basic physical activities, both moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity are necessary to stay healthy. Now how much should you do? Following the recommendations of the WHO, adults between 18 – 64 years old should do, every week, at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity PA (50% – 70% of the maximum heartrate) or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity PA (70% – 85% of your maximum heartrate), or a combination of both. Examples of moderate effort are brisk walking, gardening or actively playing with your kids. Vigorous-intensity activities involve running, walking in the mountains or the popular HIT (high intensity training). We should also do muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week (e.g. gym or Pilates).
4. Sometimes we know what is good for us, but we just do not do it. How do you help people who have a motivation problem?
Motivation plays a crucial role in sport psychology. I always ask people to first reflect on why they want to do physical activity, to make it meaningful for themselves. A big part of our motivation and our attitude towards doing sports depends on how much we consider it as useful. So, we need to understand our motivation behind what we are doing. It is important to find different sources of motivation; these can be intrinsic vs extrinsic sources. Intrinsic motivation comes from within yourself and are in general more powerful to help you get going. An example is when it motivates you to get more energy, feel more clearheaded and calmer, to grow stronger, to acquire new skills or to feel proud when you have finished. Instead of being motivated to earn an award or avoid something negative (e.g. expectations from others or gaining weight). Be aware that this reflection process is not easy, and it needs to be done regularly.
Second, following the first point, as soon as you have a clear idea on why you want to become more active, write down realistic goals and set your priorities straight. Start small and focus on what you can do instead of what you cannot do.
Third, make sure you are doing something you like. Don’t buy an expensive bike or take a CrossFit abonnement simply because everybody is doing it.
Fourth, know yourself. Do you like to be active in a group or do you prefect to do sports on your own? Would you like to be coached by a personal trainer? Also, when you make your plan, make sure you schedule activities in your calendar. Blocking your agenda will make it less optional for you.
Fifth, ask for help and have people around you who support you. Look at your goals, who is going to help you and keep you responsible for your plans? Find a friend or family member who you can share your plans with and who is going to encourage you.
5. Perhaps even more important than motivation and willingness (to start with physical activity), is perseverance, the ability to continue. How can we keep going and make this a lifestyle rather than a short-term inspiration aspiration?
I think the above approach should already help you with your motivation, but to learn about perseverance, we should look at athletes and how they deal with adversity and loss in motivation:
- As a sport psychologist we spend a lot of time educating our athletes in psychological skills training (PST). One of those skills is self-talk, the ability to hold an internal monologue to enhance performance. So, for example when you are about to give up you can talk to yourself. I personally love the 5-second rule of Mel Robbins (2009). When you find yourself stuck in hesitation before going to the gym, going for a run or whatever physical activity you intend to do, you simply must push yourself within 5 seconds before your brain will kill your intention. Close your eyes and visualize yourself being launched in a rocket and you have a 5 seconds count down window. Start counting 5-4-3-2-1… than, get up and get moving. Try it…
- In sport psychology, recently a lot of research is being done on applying self-compassion and how this can enhance an athlete’s performance and well-being (Mosewich, A., 2013). I think we can learn a lot from this if we want to improve our perseverance skills. Although self-compassion involves being kind to oneself, it doesn’t mean it will undermine our motivation to push ourselves. It shouldn’t be confused with allowing yourself to give up on what you are doing. Instead, if you have your goals clear, self-compassion means you ask yourself what exactly you would need to succeed instead of getting frustrated when you lose your motivation. Imagine an ultra-runner (an athlete who runs for more than 100KM) starts to have doubts and is about to give up, he needs to be prepared and understand what it is his mind needs in order to continue running. So, imagine the situation you are about to give up, what would you need in order to continue? What would you need to tell yourself (self-talk!)? Prepare it, try to imagine yourself in that situation, visualize it and you are less likely to give up when it happens.
A few more tips:
- Know yourself and learn from past experiences. Have you tried to start a physical activity before? What made you give up? What would you need to avoid giving up this time? What resources do you have to keep on going on days you are not motivated?
- Work with routines and prepare yourself. Routines are one of the key elements for athletes to perform well. With a routine you implement a certain rigor into your sport practice. One example is preparing (a bag with) your sports clothes to make it easier on yourself when you come home after a busy day. Another routine is to have a healthy snack in the afternoon in order to have enough energy to work out in the evening. Or implementing a physical activity first thing in the morning.
- Be pragmatic and stay flexible. If you don’t have much time to be active or when an urgency comes in between you and your activity, cut it up in pieces. Research has shown that there is no difference between a brisk walk of 40 min and 4 times 10 minutes in a day (Bhammar, D.M., 2012).
6. We all experience mood swings, some more severe than others. What role can sport and physical activity play in balancing and coping with these moods?
What research has shown us about the connection between anxiety, depression and physical activity (Ng, M., 2017), is that PA can ease the symptoms of severe mood swings and make you feel better by releasing feel-good endorphins (“happy hormones”). That is not only because PA makes you feel better but also because it creates structural changes in the brain, due to its neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to create new pathways and to heal itself. PA is not yet considered as an initial form of treatment, however some countries (a.o. the UK and the Netherlands) do recommend in some cases PA as an initial stand-alone treatment for mild and moderate depression.
Bhammar, DM, Angadi SS, Gaesser GA (2012). Effects of fractionized and continuous exercise on 24h ambulatory blood pressure. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 44(12): 2270-2276.
Mosewich, Amber & Crocker, Peter & Kowalski, Kent & De Longis, Anita. (2013). Applying Self-Compassion in Sport: An Intervention with Women Athletes. Journal of sport & exercice psychology. 35. 514-24.
Ng, Mark & How, Choon & ng, yin ping. (2017). Managing depression in primary care. Singapore Medical Journal. 58. 459-466.
Interview by: Renate Wassenberg, Life Coach (ICF), Career Consultant, Psychologist (MSc) and EMDR Therapist, owner of Coppet Coaching, www.coppetcoaching.com.
Renate Wassenberg, MSc, ACC
Founder of Coppet Coaching
Personal Coach, Career Consultant, Psychologist & EMDR Therapist