Easter is a time of the year when many of us get to take a few days off work and spend some important time with family and friends but, with a relaxed schedule, it is also a time when we tend to indulge in too much food and drink. For a lot of people, the Easter break is the final blow to an already limping New Year’s Resolution, and when the seasonal fun ends and it’s time to get back to work, our motivation levels can be left on the floor.
“The struggle is real,” says Dr. Jennifer Heisz, author of ‘Move The Body, Heal The Mind: Overcome Anxiety, Depression, Dementia and Improve Focus, Creativity and Sleep’. The renowned expert in neuroscience and exercise learned a lot about upping her own fitness game when she embarked on a journey that took her from being a sedentary scholar to a tenacious triathlete. “The brain is partly to blame. Our lack of motivation for exercising is a relic of our evolutionary past when we needed to expend a lot of energy to hunt and gather our food. Back then, energy conservation was imperative for survival, and so the brain evolved to view any voluntary movement as an extravagant expense, and this makes us lazy.”
Worry Less About Willpower
Of course, the commercialization of candy at Easter means that we consume far more energy than we actually need, but that doesn’t stop our bodies from wanting to store those excess calories for a later date. “On top of that, we often overlook the fact that exercising requires a lot of willpower,” says Dr Heisz. “Save yourself the time and energy you need to exercise by using a calendar to plan out your workout ahead of time. Include as many details as possible: What activity will you be doing? When will you do it? Where? And with whom? This will save you the willpower you’ll need to overcome the brain’s biological inertia so you can get up off the couch and start moving.”
Smash Those Sedentary Easter Break Sessions
Whether enjoying the Easter break from the comfort of your couch, or returning to work and spending hours sitting in the office, there’s one thing that threatens to derail our progress, and that’s the amount of time we spend without moving. “Sitting is the new smoking,” says Heisz. “When we sit for long periods of time, our body goes into hibernation mode; depressing our metabolism and increasing our blood pressure, blood sugar and weight. High blood pressure damages the heart and its vessels. This reduces brain blood flow, which not only makes it harder for us to think clearly and focus but it also increases our risk of dementia.
“The solution? Every 30 minutes take a two-minute movement break. Move in whatever way feels right for you. You can do jumping jacks, push-ups, or burpees in your own home if you need to. And if you need to start out with something a bit gentler, try a self-paced walk or stretching.”
Dr Heisz, who is also the Director of the NeuroFit Lab at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, says that we shouldn’t let the fear of challenging workouts stop us from getting started. “2 to 5 minutes of movement is all it takes to counteract the deleterious effects of sitting, and to replenish the brain with the vital nutrients it needs to think, stay focused, and thrive.”
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone and Reap the Rewards
An excuse that we often tell ourselves in order to avoid exercise is the one that suggests we are too tired or stressed to workout. In truth, as we workout more, we become fitter and more energized. We also reap mental rewards from our physical investments. “Tough workouts that push us outside of our comfort zone not only help us grow physically stronger but also make us more resilient to life’s challenges, and this is exactly what happened to me while I was training for the Ironman,” shares Heisz. “The training transformed me into a more resilient person, and I became less reactive to everyday stressors.”
Here’s how it works: Intense workouts induce a dynamic stress response known as allostasis. Allostasis helps the body adapt and grow and is exactly what we need to become fitter, stronger and healthier. “The amazing thing is that we only have one stress response for all stressors, including physical stressors from exercise and also psychological stressors from our everyday life,” says Dr Heisz. “In the same way that you can grow your muscular strength by progressively lifting heavier weights, you can expand your stress tolerance for exercise and life by progressively adding intensity and duration to your workouts.”
Depression Can’t Compete With a Fitter You
“Our research shows how quickly mental health can decline under chronic psychological stress, but it also highlights how effective exercise is at protecting us from stress-induced depression,” Heisz shares. “Just six weeks of chronic stress led to depression in people who have never had a diagnosis before. But exercise buffered against those stress effects. Although HIIT and moderate-intensity exercises were equally effective, those who engaged in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling three times per week ended up less stressed and less inflamed.”
Research shows that aerobic exercises can alleviate depression and it is the duration matters most here. Increasing your workout by just 10 minutes will yield a greater antidepressant effect. Resistance exercises such as yoga, tai chi and weight training can also help alleviate depression, but here it is the intensity that matters most. Increasing your resistance workout intensity by just 10 percent will yield a greater antidepressant effect. So, stress is no excuse for abstaining from exercise.
Focus On Both the Short- and Longer-Term Goals to Keep Your Training On Track
A significant reason that many people feel less motivated to train after Easter is because they failed to see the results of their New Year’s Resolution, but this is just a matter of changing your perspective on what constitutes progress. “Most people start a new exercise program and want results NOW!” says Dr Heisz. “Typically, the desired results are physical, like weight loss or muscle gain, but those physical changes can take months to transpire, and that can be very discouraging. The solution? We need to reframe things. First, instead of focusing on the physical benefits which can take months, try focusing on the mental benefits that can be felt immediately after every workout. “You’ll feel better, more focused, and less anxious after every workout. How’s that for instant gratification!?
Try focusing less on the goal and more on the overall experience. “When we focus on the experience that we get during exercise, it makes the whole process more intrinsically motivating,” shares Dr Heisz. “Your exercising experience doesn’t have to be overly positive to have a positive effect. Try paying attention to your heart rate and muscle contractions. When focusing on the exercise experience, it becomes flow-like… an enjoyable, effortless experience, that makes you want to see it through to the end.