Researcher: "We need to find our way back to the childish joy of being active.”
Today, we're flooded with apps and tech that measure all our physical activity, often against the achievements of friends and acquaintances. For some, it creates healthy motivation. For others, it can lead to withdrawal and a feeling of failure.
Professor Egil W. Martinsen at the Mental Health and Addiction Clinic at Oslo University Hospital has done research on how exercise affects our mental health. He says that physical activity, paired with our measurement-obsessed society, has unwanted side effects for some.
"For me, it's very strange to see that so many devoted exercisers obsess over measuring themselves. They train and compete with each other as if they were top athletes. It can certainly be a positive motivation that brings good health benefits, but it can have its side effects. On one end of the spectrum, it can lead to exercise addiction. On the other end, the performance pressures it creates can make people feel like failures," says Martinsen.
THE HAPPY MESSAGE: We can get most of the physical and mental health benefits of being active just by exercising a half-hour or so, on most days of the week.
He adds that the point of physical activity should primarily be about pleasure and health.
"With health, I think especially about mental health,” he says. “And luckily, the mental health benefits of being active don’t depend on how much or how hard you exercise."
More good news: Intense exercise may not be needed after all. Martinsen explains that we can get most of the physical and mental health benefits of being active by exercising just a half- hour or so on most days of the week, with an intensity equivalent to a fast walk. It doesn’t have to be difficult or advanced.
With this approach, you probably won’t become an elite athlete, but you’ll preserve and strengthen your health. And according to Martinsen, that’s good enough for most of us.
PLAY AROUND: Kids are intuitively active, moving simply because it feels good and makes them happy. We can practice and restore this childish joy of being active, says researcher Egil Martinsen.
Martinsen believes we can learn a lot from engaging our inner child, and that being active is actually intuitive for us.
"When we're kids, no one says ‘I can't run’ or ‘I can't climb trees.’ We try and test everything, no matter if the people we’re playing with are faster or stronger. Everyone moves, regardless of their level or experience.” He adds, “children have this intuitive nature for activity. They do what feels natural, while adults tend to forget what it means to play.”
Martinsen says we can train ourselves to remember that feeling again, and engage our active natures in a natural, lighthearted way–taking a recess in our day to be active.
“Training should be a sanctuary and a source of relaxation, where we recharge and grow. But if you have negative feelings about being active for various reasons, you can practice loving it again," he says.
SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO:“By moving the body, we can influence and improve our mental health. And if we do something we like daily, it can be a highlight of our day rather than something we dread," says Martinsen.
Martinsen recommends finding something that is fun and pleasing to you, preferably something social that can also create a sense of community.
– If you hate running, stop forcing yourself to do it. You’re not likely to stick with something you hate, and that can backfire with feelings of failure. But if you truly want to commit to running, start with doing just a little every day, so it doesn’t feel like drudgery. With time, you just might be able to turn the negative spiral around and make your run a highlight of your day.
Psychologists call this behavioral activation; it’s an established depression treatment that Martinsen has researched extensively. In behavioral activation, you identify specific goals that are pleasurable activities, and try to meet those goals each week.
"By moving the body, we can influence and improve our mental health. And if we do something we like daily, it can be a highlight of our day, rather than something we dread," he says.
If you're going to compete, the best thing to do is to compete with yourself, says Martinsen."
"Use yourself as your own yardstick, and find joy in small improvements. Show yourself that you are good enough. We have to practice thinking that we are up for our goals. There is also comfort in the fact that they’re achievable goals.