Links between strength training and wellbeing
I've just started strength training. I only do it for one session a week, and it's specifically targeted at building my upper body strength to assist me with my "swimmer's marathon" (The Dart10k) in September.
In "having" to do it, I've actually found I rather enjoy it, and have enjoyed a number of other wellbeing benefits as well as feeling more capable in the water...and so if you're looking for a practical approach to wellbeing - consider asking your gym to devise a programme for you.
Exercise stimulates the production of “happy hormones” and “neurotransmitters” eg:
1. DOPAMINE: Also known as the "feel good" hormone - it is a part of our brain's "reward system". Dopamine is what "fires" when we achieve something, for example a new goal in your exercise routine - I was very pleased when I upped my set rate to 3 instead of just 2, and could lift slightly heavier weights.
2. SEROTONIN: This is both a hormone and neurotransmitter
which helps regulate our mood, our sleep and even our appetite and digestion (all three of which will in turn affect our overall wellbeing - we tend to "feel better" after a good night's sleep; or when we haven't been "comfort eating") – and this can be generated by exercising especially outdoors in the sun. I've noticed a number of outdoor gyms near me which are free to use, so perhaps take a stroll around your local area to see what might be available at no extra cost. BUT be mindful of safety when starting any exercise regime.
3. ENDORPHINS: Known as "nature's pain relief" and are produced in response to stress or discomfort - and increase when we are engaged in exercise and other activities that we enjoy. Of course you may not feel it so much at the time, and with strength training there's the "ache" up to 2 days later, but you will often find a sense of "happy tiredness" after having completed a workout for the day.
4. ENDOCANNABINOIDS: These produce a state of "bliss", sometimes also known as the "runner's high" after exercising "in the zone". As part of my routine, I warm up with a "hiit" style exercise - cycling on the stationary bike and "pushing" my heart rate for 15 seconds every minute (with 45 secs recovery). I admit, I've not experienced much "Bliss" during this, but I have noticed that sometimes while running or swimming at a different point in time, I have had moments of thinking "yes, I can do this"...and far more frequently than I used to.
5. GABA: An inhibitory molecule which can slow down the firing of neurons in turn creating a sense of calm – this can be produced by yoga or meditation, and this is a clever way that strength training can help, without you even realising. Now, I work out to meditations sometimes, BUT if you find that a bit "hippy dippy" as my husband likes to call it, consider this:
The nature of strength training is that it is controlled and focused, which in turn regulates the breathing.
- This can help produce GABA (generating a sense of calm) without meditation
- The focus required can act as a stimulant for our focus and again increase the oxygenation benefits as would listening to a podcast
- The act of focusing also gets us “outside our head” – unlike stress at the dawn of civilisation, 21 Century stress is as much of our own over-thinking creation as it can be physical. Further to which, if you are in a cycle of negative automatic thoughts, it can be very difficult to break, with “calm down” simply serving to wind you up more. One of the tips I would give clients is to focus on counting paving stones, or bricks rather than just thinking “I must breathe” as this gets you outside your head – the counting and the focus involved in strength work can do the same.
- It is also notable that exercise is a practice that can be done at any time – ie when you are already feeling good (and not just as a response to channelling the negative energy at a time of stress). As such, you are building these healthy habits at a time before you need them, and by doing so this preparation can act as a buffer enabling you to stand stronger emotionally and mentally, as well as physically.
The importance of boosting any of our happy hormones is taking advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity – which is that the circuitry and chemical balance of the brain can change for the better when we participate in exercise (or other wellbeing pursuit regularly).
Further, exercise encourages more oxygen to reach the back of the brain, which is beneficial for our mental health, and this can be boosted more if we are also stimulating our brain through low level concentration eg on a podcast.
So while I am not sure how intensely I will continue with my current regime when (I hope) I complete my 10k swim, I certainly believe the habits I am forming are likely to stick around a little longer than the challenge alone.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt
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