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  • Andrew Stephenson

Survive and Thrive Part 2: Exercise

If you missed the introduction to this series, you can read it here.

Today the focus is healthy movement to reduce stress and burnout. The cruel irony when it comes to stress and health behaviors, particularly exercise and sleep, is that the people who need them the most are usually the ones who find it most difficult to do. Why is this true of exercise and not as much as, say, nutrition? One of the greatest perceived barriers to participating in regular exercise is time. When people need it the most is precisely when they perceive they have the least opportunity.

For that reason, it’s critical that right now, we consider exercise in simple forms that can be efficient but still provide benefits. Don’t worry so much about breaking personal records or crushing the latest 30-day fitness fad. Focus less on quantifying your activity and more on enjoying the positive mood it brings.

The World Health Organization describes burnout as feelings of energy depletion, exhaustion, increased mental distance from or feeling negative about one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. Couple burnout with stress and anxiety (which an alarming proportion of our population is currently feeling) and we get a pretty bleak picture of the daily struggle many are going through right now.

Luckily, cardiovascular exercise has been found to increase well-being and decrease psychological distress and emotional exhaustion. It improves mood and confidence while also reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Resistance training also shares some of these benefits, namely increasing well-being, personal accomplishment, and reducing perceived stress.

But all these benefits are useless if people don't do it. It must be emphasized that you don’t need to engage in intense or lengthy workouts to achieve these positive outcomes. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, as little as 5 to 10-minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.

Here’s where I think there’s a lot of opportunities right now. Many people tend to sit at the extreme ends of the exercise continuum; they’re either at the “Exercise? You’re kidding right.” end or they’re at the “How much do you bench, Bro?” end. Exercise seems to have become one of those polarizing things where you either don’t do it, or you go all out.

On one side you look at the rise in participation in marathons, triathlons, ironman, CrossFit, and adventure races and think we’re becoming a country of athletes. But this remains at odds with CDC and HHS data that continues to show that somewhere between a half and two-thirds of our population falls short of appropriate levels of regular exercise.

Perhaps a factor that is contributing to this divide is that through social media, apps, and devices, the “glamorous” side of fitness is being portrayed as the norm. That can be incredibly daunting and intimidating for beginners or people who are less enthused about exercise. It potentially feeds a concept of “all or nothing” where unless you’re training for a marathon, the CrossFit Games, or to be an Instagram influencer, then there’s no point. Even for those who do (or at least did prior to COVID) exercise regularly, there’s a sense that if you don’t have the time (or equipment) to do a “full” workout then there’s little point in lacing up your sneakers.

Our recent fitness culture has become dominated by a desire to self-quantify and compete. Wearables, apps, and social networks that try to leverage gamification and competition for motivation may have inadvertently made exercise more of a chore and a disappointing pursuit of unrealistic perfection. If people aren’t setting PR’s, beating friends, or earning points and badges then they feel they’ve underachieved. At best it's probably helped push and motivate some people, but at worst, it’s sucked the joy and purpose out or exercise. For many, it’s even created anxiety about exercise – which is completely the opposite of what we need! (Here’s a great little discussion about that).

It's not realistic or practical to try and set a personal best every day. Not only does this take the mental joy out of exercise, but it also encourages people to over-train. Ever heard of the concept of a “dose-response?” Just like medication or spending time with your socially inept uncle… the right amount is tolerable and potentially beneficial, whereas too much becomes detrimental (I can handle a holiday or two with uncle Eddy each year… but lock me in an apartment with him for quarantine? Heck no!).

Exercise is similar. Doing some is better than none, but at a certain point, too much has diminishing benefits and can potentially become detrimental. Too much exercise can increase your risk of injury. It can also impede your immune system, lead to fatigue, and if it’s done over a significant period, may cause excess wear and damage that could potentially shorten your lifespan. (Here’s a great TED talk explaining the dose-response of exercise.)

What does all this mean? It means that in our current situation it's OK not to strive for lofty athletic outcomes. Instead, you should be proactive in prioritizing the basics that support your physical and mental health. Promote regular and consistent (ideally daily) moderate exercise that boosts your mood and contributes to your energy and wellbeing.

It doesn’t need to take a lot of time or be significantly difficult. The pay-back of the time investment in a daily walk (or a couple of shorter walks if long periods of time are difficult to schedule) in terms of reduced stress, improved sleep, and improved cognitive function should make other parts of your day more efficient (not to mention more tolerable and enjoyable). It can help improve the work-life balance and help maintain good physical and mental wellbeing during this challenging time.

If you think your people or your organization could benefit from learning skills to be more resilient, please contact us. We have a number of class-leading resilience and mental fitness initiatives for both population health management, and workforce high-performance.


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