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If you or anyone you love is experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19 please self-isolate and if your symptoms are causing you worry please call NHS 111. 

During this time, there has been a lot of focus on fitness. The concern is, quite rightly, that too much time inside will lead to the stagnation of the nation, with no exercise classes or sports groups to help us stay physically active. However, it’s important to remember:

Exercise isn’t just about staying fit, it’s about staying mentally well.

When lockdown first began, there was a rush of people online talking about using the lockdown as an opportunity to “get in shape.” There was a flush of people posting online about their new “routine.” 

Yet as the weeks have dragged on, generally, the tone online has become less enthusiastic. Many people have found that it’s just too exhausting to dedicate yourself to an entirely new fitness routine at this time. For some, this has caused disappointment. 

It’s understandable, of course, but even when we feel unmotivated it is really important to keep moving. Not just for your body – but for your brain too. Exercise releases a whole load of essential hormones for managing anxiety, stress, depression and also for increasing self-confidence and creativity. It is often when we feel the least motivated and the least like exercising that we are actually in most need of it. But it doesn’t have to be intimidating or exhausting! Afterall, you’ve already got a lot on your plate.  

Here are some suggestions of how to work small, easy to manage mental health movement moments into your day. 

Find a positive reason to exercise.

So often, we link our reasons for exercise to negative thoughts. “I don’t like my body shape,” “I wish I was fitter,” or “I’m so lazy.” This relies solely on forcing our brains to ‘correct’ something and sets up an inner conflict inside of ourselves that, when it comes to feeling overwhelmed or emotional, is less likely to provoke positive action and more likely to provoke negative reflection. 

For instance, rather than prompting us to go for a run, our frustration at our own laziness/body image/sense of inadequacy will only deepen these feelings. 

What we need are positive reasons to exercise, such as “It makes me feel better,” or “It’ always calms me down.” That way, when we are faced with those negative thoughts that seem overwhelming, we can counter them with positive ones to motivate us towards the movement. 

Start small. More is good, but any at all is best!

We have a tendency in life to focus on doing the most, or the maximum or the best that we can do. Many people struggle to maintain momentum with exercise workouts because they are plagued by perfectionism and become disheartened that they are not “the best” at what they are trying to do. 

The truth about exercise for wellness is that whilst more is good, just doing any movement at all is the best! It is so much better for your long term mental wellbeing to have a daily regime of a little movement that you are committed to than to commit yourself to run 5K in a week and then giving up for the next six. Regular input of those happy hormones will help you keep balanced mental health during trying circumstances. So don’t wait to be perfect – just move!

Work it into your daily life.

If we were still operating in normal society, we would suggest that you weave your exercise into your daily routine – perhaps walking to work, or using your lunch break to go to a gym near your workplace. This is more complicated now that our regular environments have changed so much, but the principle still applies. 

Pick an exercise routine that feels like it naturally fits into the flow of your day. For me, that’s cycling to the shop to get groceries. I was going anyway, so why not turn it into exercise? For my husband, it’s using his lunch break for a walk around the park. Find a moment in your new routine where exercise can sit regularly and comfortably and slot it in. Perhaps this is five minutes of meditative yoga whilst the coffee brews in the morning, or maybe start a football tournament with your kids that takes place every afternoon, or maybe it’s just including stretching every time you get up for a tea break from your computer. Find a way to work in those regular, manageable boosts of energy and happy hormones in your day.

Include others.

It’s so much easier to be motivated when we have other people by our side. So even though you can’t go to the gym or attend usual work out classes, try to find ways to explore exercise with others. This might be starting jogging with someone in your household, or simultaneously use the same workout video with a friend over zoom, or hold an online dance party with your friends.

Working out with others gives us structure and goals and a person to keep us accountable. Spending time with others and working together in a community helps to boost your self-confidence and help you guard against low mood, and you can guarantee that it’s something that will benefit your workout partner too!

Don’t take it too seriously!

These are pretty serious times at the moment, and yes, staying healthy is a very serious business, but exercise is an opportunity in your day to have a good time. So make it something you enjoy! 

You’re much more likely to fit it into your daily routine if it’s something you can look forward to. So don’t feel pressured to work out in a certain “formal” structure just because it’s what other people are doing. If you don’t like work-out videos but you love a lunchtime dance party with your mate, then do that instead! If you dislike jogging but you secretly really enjoy gymnastics, why not spend 45 mins in the garden with your kids practising handstands? It’s very important to stay healthy and to keep your mind healthy, but don’t make it a chore, make it a joy!

Doing something we love gives our minds a break from worry and anxiety, and gives us a happy hormone boost.

So don’t feel disheartened if your motivation has lagged since the start of lockdown or you haven’t experienced the radical body and fitness transformation you were wishing for – you’re doing great as you are. This is a hard time and adding guilt about how much you’re exercising isn’t going to help! So instead, focus on what you are doing and increasing it just a little bit. Just moving a little bit every day and building fun exercise into your daily routine will help keep your body and mind healthy.

Don’t give up, and keep moving!

If you’d like to give dancing a try, check out The Lily-Jo Project’s recent video here where you can learn the moves to Break Free! 


About the Author: Emma Hinds

Emma is a writer living and working in Manchester. She is a mental health advocate and has been blogging about mental health for the last ten years. Emma has a history of eating disorders and is currently living with a diagnosis of OCD and chronic depression. She has been working specifically with young people struggling with their mental health for the last four years and is now supporting the Lily Jo Project’s On Track follow up schools programs. You can see Emma’s work and follow her mental health blog here. You can also follow her on socials here: twitter@EmmaLouisePH and instagram@elphreads.


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