Self care series: Exercising for emotional well-being

Self-care series: As we enter the season of giving and a time of year when many people struggle not only with getting enough exercise, but also with keeping up with self-care, let’s take a deeper dive into how to make exercise a form of self-care.  To do that, we need to look at self-care from all aspects of your ‘self’—mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual and how to design exercise as a way to recharge your whole person, so you can be well now. 

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If someone sent you a message that said, “I need to tell you something important”, what would you do? Well, if it was from a business trying to get you to buy something, chances are you would ignore it. If it were a trusted friend, you would contact them right away.  

Emotional well-being is not about feeling great all the time, it’s about listening to your emotions because you know they are important messages about your well-being.  

If you think about eating a lemon, your mouth will probably start to water. If you think of being in your happy place, your body will probably relax. This is because thoughts are immediately felt in our body. Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes it is overwhelming, but what you think is always felt in your body.  

This happens through is a vast network of superhighways that run from your brain to every corner of your body through nerve cells. They are continually sharing information back and forth about the state of your well-being. Brain to body, body back to the brain, faster than you can blink. They communicate the degree to which you are are safe, contented, and connected. 

These three qualities of well-being we discussed in the last part of this series are a simple way to think about mental well-being. When your brain perceives that there is a threat to your safety, contentment, or connection to others, it signals to your body that there is a problem. Instantly the thought creates changes in your body to let you know there is a problem. At the same time, it prepares your body to take care of the problem. This is how your brain and body work together to keep you well.  

But if the ‘problem’ is a critical email from your boss, or your clothes feeling tight from a week of holiday parties, those changes in your body to take action won’t help you solve the problem, they may even make things worse. A negative stress response can limit creativity and self-control and send a surge of cortisol into your body, telling it to store fat in case this ‘problem’ leads to a lack of food in the future.  

We cannot change the way we are hardwired to handle stress. Your nervous system is hardwired to prepare for movement when there is a threat to your sense of safety, contentment, and connection. We can, however, listen closely to our emotions, knowing they are important messages about our well-being. As licensed psychologist and author Guy Winch, PhD shares in this powerful TED talk, when we see emotional hygiene as essential as washing our hands when around someone who is ill, we can truly be well.   We can choose to respond to emotions like we would to a trusted friend who sends us an urgent message—immediately with kindness and care.  

Yet, we often forget that those emotions prepare our bodies for movement. Moving with kindness is like washing your hands to clear away germs. When you perceive exercise as something you should do, hanging over your head like another task on your to do list, you miss the chance for it to restore emotional well-being. When you think of exercise as a moment in your day to check in and clear the effects of thoughts stored in your body, you are using exercise as a valuable form of self-care for your whole person.  

Bottom Line: Exercise, when done as an act of self-care, leads to emotional well-being. It gives you a chance to check in, listen to the messages, and respond by giving your body the movement it needs to clear the thoughts held in your body as emotions.  

Be Well Now,

Janet

Exercising WELL gives you a whole toolbox of user-friendly ways to exercise to restore well-being in your own personalized way.  Start by clarifying your Why for exercise in a FREE coaching call with me. No strings. No commitment. Just a conversation that lets you unleash your natural motivation to be well now.  Click here to schedule your call. 

Strength, beyond your muscles. 

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As we discussed with cardio, we often talk about strength training in terms of the long-term benefits. Yet your brain really cares about the instant rewards of doing something. But what if the instant ‘reward’ you get from lifting weights is muscle soreness and fatigue? Sure, you could tell yourself ‘no pain, no gain’ and convince yourself that it is a ‘good sore’ and all that discomfort means you got a ‘good workout’. Your brain, though, is most concerned with you feeling good now and it’s designed to avoid things that are painful or uncomfortable. When your willpower to endure the discomfort runs out, your brain will start to plant excuses in your head about why you need to skip strength training today (and the next day, and the next).

Eighty percent of people are not doing strength training. Like you, they probably know the benefits—stronger bones, better aging, stronger metabolism—but the brain has some concerns—injury, weight gain, getting ‘too muscular’, or looking like a weakling at the gym. This keeps many people living in the ‘should’ when it comes to strength training.

Are you ready to get out of the ‘should’ when it comes to strength training? Ready to reassure your brain that it is all good, because you are going to work with how your body is designed to be strong? Let’s cut through the marketing- and myth-based ‘facts’ and clear the path to your strongest possible muscles, bones, and metabolism now and every decade going forward.

What is strength training? Strength training is also known as weight training, weight lifting, and resistance training. Basically, it’s when you challenge your body to be able to move your body or objects more easily against gravity. If you are thinking the things you do in your daily life like housework, child care, and yard work mean you don’t need strength training, click here to see why these physical activities are different than exercise.

Making your brain want to strength train. From the very first time you do a strength exercise, you set into motion a cascade of events that produce unique and powerful events in your whole body. Yet, most of the effects of doing or not doing strength training are not noticeable right away, so it’s easy to forget why it is so important. In the next few blogs, I’ll show you the Real-time Results of each strength training session, and why pain and discomfort are not necessary. This way, your brain will be more confident that doing strength training will help you feel and function better now, without having to first endure pain, discomfort, or embarrassment.

Why strength is not from your muscles. Although we most equate strength with big muscles, that is not where strength comes from. Before you even move, something very important happens. Your brain is activated and ‘plans’ what muscles will be needed to create the intended movement. It estimates how many muscle fibers are needed to create the force you need to move against gravity. Then your brain sends a signal through your spinal cord to the muscles you need to do that movement. Without this nervous system signal, muscles can’t move. This pre-planning of movement makes it much smoother and more efficient.

The pathway to strength: Just like the first time you take a trip somewhere, the first time you perform a movement, your brain has to work harder to find the most efficient pathway. Over time, it becomes easier as your brain remembers the pathway. Think about how your body learned to walk, ride a bike, tie your shoes, swim, or play sports. All of these are examples of this process we call muscle memory. This building of muscle memory is what makes movements more automatic, so you can gain coordination, balance, agility, and strength.

Confusion about muscle memory: There is some talk that muscle memory is bad, because you burn fewer calories as your body gets used to an exercise and that you need muscle confusion to keep your body burning more calories. Honestly, the calorie-burning difference is minimal and probably won’t add up to any change on the scale. Muscle memory is what allows you to function. If you are exercising to lose weight so you can feel and function better, muscle memory is your friend.

The strength of your brain. Since the brain and nerves are what tell your muscles how to move, strength originates in your brain and nervous system, not in your muscles. That means you need your brain for building strength. You can see why present moment awareness is so important to get the most from strength training. It ensures you are creating the nerve pathways you want, the ones that allow you to access your strength by positioning your body in the right way, and creating nerve pathways so that strong movement becomes more automatic (more on that later). If your brain is distracted by a TV show, or other people around you, it won’t have as much ability to put into building your strength.  If finding the time for strength training is a concern, choose high-quality strength training by focusing your attention on your body rather than trying to save time by multitasking and doing it while watching TV

Bottom line: Your full mindful attention is your best strength training tool!

In the next blog, we’ll look at what happens in your muscles when you strength train that continues the cascade of events that leads to you feeling and functioning better.

What are the most important benefits of cardio?

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As you saw in the last two blogs, there are two distinct factors that make movement a cardiovascular exercise (cardio):

  1. Moving a large amount of your muscles circulates more blood through your cardiovascular system causing your heart to beat stronger (not just faster).  
  2. Moving continuously for longer than two minutes so your body starts relying on your oxygen-using, longer-lasting system for fueling muscles.

That continuous, large-muscle type of movement creates a cascade of events in your body with instant or, in other words, Real-time Results such as:

  • De-stressing. The hormones and chemicals produced when your muscles contract in this way shift your nervous system out of the stress response and into the relaxation response (as long as the way you are doing cardio is not more stress-producing for you).
  • Lowering blood pressure. To help your blood vessels handle the increased pressure of the stronger heart contraction, your body releases nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes blood vessels. This stays in your system for up to 22 hours after one bout of moderate intensity cardio, helping to keep blood pressure at a healthier level.
  • Better blood sugar levels. Because your muscles are using the sugars (glucose) in your blood to help fuel muscles, cardio helps you manage elevated blood sugar levels. Cardio also send signals to the receptors in muscles to be more sensitive to your own insulin. This helps lower blood sugar instantly and for a few hours after you stop exercising.
  • Boost sleep quality. Cardio during the day means that night you have a better chance of falling asleep easily and sleeping more soundly through the night. As we all know, a good night’s sleep means a better tomorrow.
  • Better digestion. The repetitive, continuous movement of cardio helps your digestive system improve its mobility, making it work more ‘smoothly’ from top to bottom.
  • Lifts mood. After about ten minutes of cardio, your brain releases a dose of various brain chemicals that improves mood, calms your nerves, and boosts your ability to hands life’s stressors. These are the same chemicals that are in many mental health medications. They are also the ones released when you eat comfort food. The difference is that cardio releases them in the balanced way that they were designed to elevate your mood naturally.
  • Immune protection.  is boosted for up to several hours. One way is by increasing natural killer cell activity—the first line of defense against colds and flu as well as most forms of cancer.
  • Improves focus. As little as ten minutes of cardio increases the ability of your brain to focus. Cardio can be used as an immediate and effective part of treatment for people with ADD or anyone living in this fast-paced, distracted culture.
  • Strengthens memory. Each bout of cardio stimulates the growth of new brain cells like nothing else does. Your brain releases BDNF, a chemical that has been called Miracle Grow for the brain. Even better, it boosts the parts of the brain that stores memories. Exercising before an exam has been shown to help students improve grades and exercise has helped people concerned about memory loss with aging get more out of brain-training exercises.  

Take a moment to ask yourself, Which of those Real-time Results of cardio really got my attention? These are the results of cardio that are most important. Why? Because they matter most to your brain.  

Even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, your brain is hardwired to take care of your body in every moment. When you use the long-term benefits of cardio, like weight loss or health protection, to get motivated to do cardio, it just does not work. Your brain is most motivated by what will make you feel and function better now.  

There are, however, a few Real-time Results of cardio that are not helpful because they are based on misconceptions and marketing.  The top three Empty Results to watch out for are:

  • Sweat: All that large muscle, continuous movement produces heat. That increases your body temperature, possibly causing you to sweat. Whether you sweat depends on many factors including genetics, hydration level, your clothing, the type of activity you are doing, the temperature of the air, the humidity of the air. The fact is that sweat does not mean you ‘got a good workout’. It only means you need to drink more water to rehydrate.  
  • Muscle burn: Feeling the burn may be an outdated saying, but the connection between muscles burning and the benefit of exercise is still alive and well in the minds of many.   You might be told you are ‘working’ certain parts of the body, implying that the burning sensations means you are burning more fat in those areas. The reality is that the burn is just the sensation of muscles fatiguing, not fat melting.  
  • Burning calories:  Although it appears to be pretty easy to find out how many calories you burn with cardio, it really isn’t. The calories your body burns, even for the same exact level of exercise, vary too much to be predictable and the numbers flashing in front of you are only a rough estimate. Burning calories is not as important as we have made it out to be.  More important for weight loss is doing cardio to feel better now, so you are less likely to reach for food to do that.

Take a moment to create your own list of Real-time Results from cardio to help you stay naturally and easily motivated to use this incredible resource for feeling and functioning your best every day.  

Next week, we’ll take a tour through the unique Real-time Results of strength training.  

Whole-heartedly,

Janet

How to drop the ‘should’ in exercise

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If we know we should exercise, why do we struggle with it? The answer is complex, but as I said in my last blog series there is one word in that statement that changes everything. ‘Should’ makes exercise an externally-imposed activity with future results. Why does that matter so much? Your brain’s job is to pay attention to what is most important to you right now, what will keep you well right now.

Yet those of us in the healthy-person business keep telling you all the great reasons why you should get more exercise.

Exercise regularly to reduce your risk of

  • colon cancer by over 60%
  • recurrent breast cancer by approximately 50%
  • Alzheimer’s disease by approximately 40%
  • heart disease by approximately 40%
  • type II diabetes by 50%
  • death from any cause (overall mortality) by 40% 1

No matter how powerful these statements are, they are not enough to keep you motivated now. When you are feeling tired at the end of a long day or overwhelmed by too many things on your to do list or comfortable in your bed when the alarm goes off, what you ‘should’ do does not hold much power. What is ‘good for you’ at some point in the future just does not get top billing compared to these more immediate challenges to your well-being.

In the last blog, I simplified all the science-based factors for self-motivation into the Exercise Motivation Equation.

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What is important right now and doable right now will be most motivating right now. The trick is keeping exercise important and doable in the present moment.

Step one: Importance. When businesses are clear about the company’s core values, know their ‘why’, and communicate it well, they are more successful at motivating you to buy what they are selling.2  This not only works for successful companies, it works for successful individuals. This is why a personal coaching call is the first step in my Exercising WELL program. When we use a coaching conversation to clarify your well-being Vision and uncover your most value-driven Why for exercise, you’ll find your self-motivation for exercise ramps up.  In the coaching conversation, we transform exercise from a ‘should’ to a ‘want to’.

Once you know your Why for exercise, you are ready to discover what is most doable for your body and life now.

Step two: Doable. When your brain knows exercise will leave you feeling better now, it will want to do it. But knowing how to exercise in the way that is right for your body right now, rather than for the body you want in the future is not so easy. Many of the marketable future-based results like melting fat, having long lean muscles, and enjoying toned arms are not even doable because they ignore the natural laws of the body. Other results like six pack abs, reaching a goal weight, or completing a fitness challenge only distract from your Why.

Once you know how to move in the way your body was designed and are focused on what you can do now, exercise will immediately make you feel better right now.

In my next blog series, I’ll talk about the Real-time Results of exercise. When you know what is happening in your body with exercise now, you have the best chance of knowing how to get the results that are most important for you now, and leave you feeling better now.

Rethink this Week: Take a moment to explore your Why for exercise. Ask yourself ‘why is exercise important to me?’ Now, ask yourself ‘why is that important to me right now’ four more times. This seems a bit silly—repeating the question—but it is based on the well-established process of Motivational Interviewing3. Asking the question repeatedly, and answering it thoughtfully, will get you closer to the most value-driven reason for exercising. This is your Why. It is the deepest source of energy for your motivation in the present moment. With this motivation energy, you will be ready to use the Real-time Results of exercise that are most important to you to stay out of the ‘shoulds’ and in the ‘want tos’ for exercise. This process is more effective in a coaching conversation but doing this for yourself is a great way to get started with getting to your Why.

Enjoy Exercising WELL,

Janet

 

  1. Exercise is Medicine 
  2. Simon Sinek TED talk
  3. Instant Influence, by Michael Pantelon, PhD 

Does your exercise motivation burn out too easily?

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As I wrap up this series on building self-motivation for exercise, I hope you have learned some things about motivation and why you may have struggled in the past to keep exercising.

To review:

  • Motivation from external sources, (the scale, activity monitors, trainers, groups, exercise partners, challenges), are like the flame when you strike a match. It starts strong, but burns out quickly. When that flame connects with ingredients like the wick and wax of a candle, that flame will be sustained. You have the ingredients for motivation, but they are found only on the inside.
  • Neuroscience has found in the Habit Loop that our brain gravitates toward positive experiences like a magnet. Exercise science gives us simple solutions to making exercise a consistently positive experience.

But because we have become so skilled at outsourcing our motivation, building confidence in your internal motivation takes a new way of thinking about motivation.  And making exercise a consistently positive experience in today’s world is not simple at all. Between conflicting messages about exercise, the constant weight of guilt about not doing ‘enough’, and the ever-changing nature of your body and your life, positive experiences with exercise are like a carnival game where you try to hit a fast-moving target. Avoiding exercise can easily become a more positive experience than actually doing it!

So how do you make exercise a consistently positive and internally motivating experience? Let’s look at the two key ingredients from brain and body science covered in this blog series.

Importance:

  • When something is important to you, you will find the energy and a way to do it. What is most important to you about exercise is the flame that makes it a rewarding experience. However, when your reasons for exercising are too ‘surface’, like losing weight, or getting in shape, or being healthy, they lack that sustaining energy. Taking time to get below the surface to your Why is at the heart of making exercise a personally rewarding experience for you.
  • When exercise connects you with others, especially the people who are most important to you, it is a hugely positive experience. However, this can backfire when
    • you rely solely on groups or teams to keep you motivated
    • you are exercising because someone said you ‘should’
    • you are embarrassed about how your body looks
    • you can’t keep up with others and feel more isolated than connected

Do-ability:

  • Knowing you can get the results you want from exercise makes it a positive experience. The way to do this is to combine mindfulness—being aware of your body as it is right now—and knowledge of how to work with the natural laws of the body. This is tricky because the natural laws of the body are not very marketable. Fitness marketing often ignores them to make exercise appealing, and in the end, those fabricated results leave you less confident you can get what you really want from exercise.
  • Instant gratification makes something a positive experience (e.g., comfort foods). Exercising in a way that instantly makes you feel better, and being aware of that feeling, helps your brain learn and remember that exercise is a positive, not a negative. Yet, all of our ‘no pain no gain’, ‘just do it’, go-for-the-gold-type messages about exercise promote the delayed rewards of exercise. Delayed rewards take more energy and thus are a negative experience for your brain. Only when you focus on the Real-time Rewards of exercise is it going to be a consistently positive experience.

Importance plus Do-ability is what I call the Exercise Motivation Equation™. Using this equation gives you what you need to make exercise motivating amid the noise and confusion in the media and the dynamic nature of life.

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The next step is to learn how to exercise in a way that puts you in control of getting the results that are most important to you, that make you feel better now, and that give what you want from exercise in the future.

All of these ingredients are integrated into my coaching program, Exercising WELL. From our initial coaching call, throughout the online programs and our weekly coaching emails, you gain a working knowledge of how to put this all into action in your own life.

In the next blog series, I will share excerpts from Exercising WELL, so you can see how user-friendly, positive, and motivating this information is. With this real-life integration of exercise and motivation science, you gain confidence in your ability to keep your flame of motivation alive.

Enjoy Exercising WELL,

Janet