Why exercise is vital during lockdown

Running postIf you dare to look at your local Facebook group, or the rants on Next Door forums you would find there is a new ‘enemy of the people’. Not a politician, or someone failing to deliver PPE, but ‘joggers’. Who knew someone exercising could be so vilified? The walkers dislike anyone running near them, the runners get annoyed that people are ambling all over the place, the cyclists breeze on by. Frustratingly my usual run route has been completely closed off to runners and cyclists so walkers can use it. We are all in this together but somehow still find our tribe and our enemies. And can get very grumpy about it in the process (and as a runner get grumpier still when I’m labelled a jogger!)

We’ve got at least another 3 weeks of lockdown and increasingly confusing interpretations of what is and isn’t allowed with some wondering why anyone is exercising at all, suggesting it is downright dangerous. A comment on twitter from cyclist Julie Elliott really highlighted this…

Juliet Elliott tweet

So why is walking, running and cycling still allowed?

It is allowed because although it creates logistical challenges, it will maintain the nation’s physical health, improve mental wellbeing and also makes economic sense. In short it will keep people healthier for longer and that is just what the NHS needs right now.

We know what in many parts of the world over two thirds of adults are not active enough. This has led to insufficient physical activity being one of the leading risk factors of global mortality. World Health Organisation studies have found that those who are insufficiently active increase their risk of death by up to 30% and put massive pressures and additional costs onto health care systems. Even if we have a chronic health condition we can still find strong value in exercise, in fact, especially when we have a chronic health condition, there is a huge amount of benefit to exercising.

Physically, exercise improves muscular and cardio-respiratory fitness, improves bone and functional health, reduces the risk of hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and lowers the likelihood of falls and fractures.

Mentally, it reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression, boosts mood and quality of life and cuts down loneliness.

It is also thought exercise plays a large part in enhancing our cognitive functions (these are the different aspects of our mental functioning such as our thought processing, memory, attention, concentration and creativity), meaning we become better at controlling our behaviour and regulating our emotions. Pretty helpful when we are dealing with things we’ve never dealt with before.

Together this shows that exercise has tremendous powers which, when taken regularly and with the right intensity, can make a huge difference to our mental, cognitive and physical health. So, what counts as exercise.

It isn’t just physical activity. Exercise is purposeful, with the intention of improving fitness and with at least a slight elevation in your heart rate. Going for a very slow walk while eating an ice-cream or smoking a cigarette (which seems rather common on my local route) might be great for your feeling of wellbeing but isn’t going to do much to improve your fitness. Walking quite briskly, but still being able to chat is the minimum of what we need for both physical and mental benefit. I love this piece from New Scientist explaining it. When we are looking to improve cognitive function the studies suggest we need to be more active – into the vigorous activity level; running, cycling, circuit training, football or rowing types of sports.

And the message is clearly getting through. Sport England commissioned some research which ran at the beginning of April (3rd-6th) and found 63% of adults feel it is more important to be exercising now than they did before Coronavirus. Really interestingly it suggests that the mental health benefits described above aren’t just in research papers, they are being felt, with 67% saying the exercise they are doing is helping them with their mental health during the outbreak. Here is the full release.

So who is right? The walkers, the runners or those staying home?

My view is it is all of them. As long as there is about 30 minutes of purposeful exercise each day where your heart rate rises quite a bit and you get at least a little out of breath then you are doing a good thing for yourself and society. Carry on.

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