Q: What kind of effect can exercise have on your mental health?
Exercise can have a profound effect on one's mental health. In general, exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which can have an impact on a number of processes...improving memory, mood, anxiety, attention, and a number of other mental health factors. Exercise helps to release endorphins and serotonin, the "feel good" chemicals in our brain. You do not have to achieve the "runner's high" to benefit. It is simply the feeling of relative calm and positivity that we feel after a workout. We can feel it even after the worst run. This is why we get the phrase, "I never regret a run, but I do regret not getting out for a run."
Q: Why is exercise so important during time of stress?
During times of stress, we need healthy coping mechanisms that improve our overall health. Sleep, good quality food, hydration, and exercise are all so important during times of stress. Exercise helps us feel in control, can help us manage feelings that overwhelm us, and gives us a break from the repetitive thoughts or negative feelings that can come with stress. The release of various brain chemicals really helps our wellbeing, and exercise helps to reduce our cortisol (our stress hormone secreted from the adrenal glands) levels. High levels of cortisol over time can lead to a number of physical and mental health issues. Giving your body and mind a break from the stress is very important. It helps us navigate life's ups and downs in the short and long term. During times of chronic stress (illness, financial instability, loss for example), it is even more important to exercise consistently so that you have the mental reserves to function well.
Q: During times of uncertainty, like now, what advice would you give people to maintain a healthy mindset?
I would like to emphasize a few things that I think are really important. It is really important to focus on the things we can control. Right now, that is what we do in our own lives and in our own homes. Continuing to do the things that we know work (exercise, healthy eating habits, good quality and adequate sleep, staying connected with friends and loved ones), and letting go of the things that don't (focusing on the uncertainty, escaping through drugs or alcohol, excessive sleep). I encourage people to focus on what opportunities may lie during this time. For me personally, I am choosing to see it as an extended opportunity to build strength and cross-training in before the new season starts. For others, it may be that they can try being the morning runner they have always wanted to be, or rethink their Fall race plans in a way that reflects their grit and tenacity during this time. I believe in resilience and a focus on strengths, and the ability to do so now will really pay off mentally and physically. It's important to remember that we will not always feel this way, and will not always be under these constraints.
Q: What other physical tactics (sleep, water, nutrition) can you do to maintain good mental health?
I recommend that we stay on track. It is easy to feel like there's less access to things (a scarcity mindset), because in some ways that is true. It may be that there's a different way to approach something. This can be an opportunity to cook more, and try out the recipes from the running cookbook's you have wanted to try. Meal planning and grocery delivery may feel more manageable at this time, so stocking up on snacks that give sustained energy is important. Mindless eating or stress eating negatively impacts our mood and body, and would not put us in the best position to crush those races or feel energized for our group workouts. We want to emerge from this feeling strong mentally and physically. Staying consistent in all of the healthy habits is very important right now. The pattern does not have to be the same as it was before, but it is human nature to crave consistency, and it is because it helps us know what to expect. Staying or becoming consistent with exercise, hydration, nutrition, and sleep will help us weather the storms more easily.
Q: When would you advise someone to seek a mental health professional if they are concerned for their health?
If someone is worried about how they are handling stress, or feels that they are not managing day to day life very well, then it could be time to reach out to a mental health professional. Sometimes a crisis can tip the delicate balance of managing daily life. A mental health professional can provide the space to talk about the stress, get ideas and accountability, and be an opportunity to focus solely on you and your own wellbeing. If someone has been thinking about reaching out before and never found the time to do it, this could be the time.