How To Look After Your Health When Stressed And Super Busy: ESSENTIAL MOVEMENT
Part 5a: Essential Movement
As the autumn leaves fall, and the mild weather lingers, September is the best time for fresh start. With summer BBQs behind you and Christmas treats ahead, twelve weeks is a manageable time to create strong, permanent, wellness, and habits.
Exercise isn’t always a phrase associated with joy, so lets think of it as essential, daily, movement. This movement is a celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for what you ate. Now this may be the last thing on the radar when stressed and busy, however by organising your life around it you will find your productivity increases, as will your self confidence, not to mention the added bonus of strength, weight control and muscle tone. Its important to know that exercise can both calm you down, and increase mental strength when faced with stressful situations.
The following section will help you decide what’s best for your body.
There are increasingly more studies proving that we don’t need to exercise for hours and hours a week to reap the benefits. The latest research suggests that participation in regular exercise would yield decreased perceived stress and increased physical, mental and emotional quality of life.
What’s more, participation in group fitness class can yield even greater stress reduction and quality of life improvement than exercising individually (due to the social connections and group motivation effect). And what’s even more, this can be achieved in attending just one class a week, consistently - this works exactly in the favour of those who are stressed and super busy.
These particular findings are part of the latest research by Dr Dayna Yorks, published in the Journal of the ‘American Osteopathic Association’. It is definitely worthwhile fitting in just one hour of exercise a week. (Image below displays one of my weekly Body Pump Classes).
At school I had always excelled in sports, I competed as part of the English Schools’ athletics team, as well as swimming and playing netball competitively. When I left school and moved to London to embark on two very intensive Fashion Design degrees, my athletics and team sports ended. I started running alone in London (but I felt unsafe and it hurt me knees). On the suggestion of one of my friends I begrudgingly joined a gym in the second year of my Degree. I didn’t really enjoy it; the gym was so busy and intimidating with a cue for every machine.
One day I spoke to a fitness instructor on the gym floor and said I wasn’t feeling any benefits, I didn’t seem to be getting fitter, or stronger, I wasn’t toning up and as I was so busy with my university fashion collections I was thinking of cancelling my membership. He persuaded me to try a class called Les Mills BodyPump - and I loved it! Group exercise filled the void that was missing from no longer competing or being part of a team.
I looked forward to my one class a week, and I left de-stressed, with a buzz and renewed enthusiasm for my work. Six years later I then took the leap to become an instructor (image below).
Is walking 10,000 steps a day a waste of time?
These days it’s commonplace to spot someone walking the streets anxiously looking at their wrist (heart rate monitor, pedometer) to see if they have reached the target of 10,000 steps. This magic target originated from Japan in the 1960s, they invented an early pedometer device that they started marketing to the health conscious. A young academic called Dr Hatano believed that by persuading the public to increase their daily steps from an average 4000 to 10,000 they would burn off approximately 500 extra calories a day and remain slim. It has been a great marketing success however it takes the average person 100 minutes a day to walk 10,000 steps - is it still the most effective way to improve our fitness?
In January 2018 as part of Michael Mosley’s ongoing research into the benefits of shorter, intensive workouts, the BBC screened Mosley’s latest research into walking. Mosley found that three 10-minute brisk walks a day of moderate intensity were more manageable to fit in a busy day and had greater health benefits. This was due to the ease of consistency and the heart rate being raised higher than when doing the 1.5 hour, slower walk of 10,000 steps. This is again very positive research for those who are time short.
The Three Types of Exercise: Mind and Body
Pilates, Yoga Tai Chi, Qigong, BodyBalance and their derivatives are forms of exercise that combine body movement, mental focus, and controlled breathing to improve strength, balance, flexibility, and overall health. These are usually performed at a slower pace using body weight and small, light apparatus. These practices shouldn’t feel strenuous and an instructor led class will have some form of meditation and relaxation at the end.
People often wonder what the difference is between Yoga and Pilates? You might have heard that Pilates is more about toning your core, while Yoga is better for relaxation and flexibility, however a great instructor will create a well-rounded lesson that covers both in either practice. There are some characteristics that make Pilates and Yoga alike, and others that set them apart. Pilates and Yoga both focus on breath, alignment, balance, strength and flexibility; they both require you to be present and to use your entire body. Both are also done barefoot and have set moves and poses, and a few of which overlap like the plank (shown below).
Pilates tends to be more focused on moves practiced on the ground vs. standing poses. There is an emphasis on stretching but not hyper extending and many of the movements are performed neutral spine with the abdominals pulled in flat. In Yoga, you're upright for much of the class, depending on the style and because of this there is possibly more emphasis on leg strength. In Yoga balance is explored more thoroughly, and so is twisting and pushing your body to its maximum flexibility, even hyperextension. The core is also worked in both Yoga and Pilates but only Pilates involve lateral breathing in the ribs, rather than belly breathing, which keeps the abdominals flat.
Resistance Training is a form of exercise that improves muscular strength and endurance. During a resistance-training workout, you move your limbs against resistance provided by your body weight, gravity, bands, weighted bars or dumbbells. Some exercise machines can also be used for resistance training.
As we age it becomes more difficult to retain and build lean tissue. A sedentary individual could potentially lose up to 5% muscle mass per decade, after the age of 30. Less muscle means greater weakness, less mobility and possibly reduced bone density. One possible contribution is the possible decline of testosterone, the hormone that stimulates protein synthesis and muscle growth. Both men and women produce testosterone. Though men significantly more than women, which is why men build more muscle, and build it more quickly than women.
Its even more important as we age to eat sufficient amounts of protein and amino acids to maintain the muscle we have and help to support the growth of new, lean, tissue. Zinc is also important as it speeds up muscle-building chemical reactions in your body. It stabilizes protein structures and helps regulate the hormone levels in your body, such as your thyroid. These functions help assist the muscle protein synthesis process that accelerates after you perform a resistance-training workout.
Cardiovascular Training: Steady-state, High Intensity Interval Training, Sports Team Games
Steady State Cardiovascular (Cardio) or Tempo Training is as simple as they come, perform your chosen activity at a continuous, just out-of-comfort-zone pace, for at least 20 minutes. This could be running, fast uphill walking, biking, a gym cross trainer or stepper, or rowing machine. These are repetitive, steady, movements that utilise the bodies’ two biggest muscle groups (the legs or back), to raise the heart rate.
We would usually aim to train between 60% and 70% of our maximum heart rate, so a heart rate monitor would be really useful here. As a general guide you could use the table below, or the formula 220 – (your age) = your estimated maximum heart rate. Then divide this by 100 and x the percentage of your heart rate zone you want to find, such as 70%. For example 70% of a 40 year old’s maximal heart rate is around 126. This definitely doesn’t apply to everyone but it’s a starting point.
High Intensity Interval (HIIT) Training has become somewhat of a buzzword lately;
It means short bursts of intense cardio intervals, alternating with short recovery periods. Such a workout can be achieved through fast bodyweight, resistance movements like squat jumps and burpees, or short, intense bursts of running, biking, rowing, or the stepper machine in the gym. Regardless of how its implemented, high-intensity intervals should involve short periods of vigorous exercise that makes your heart rate speed up to the point you can’t talk. Here you would be aiming for intervals of 10-45 seconds at 80%-99% of your maximal heart rate, allowing your heart rate to come down to 50%-70% in between.
The Japanese Tabata is a very popular method; 20 seconds effort, 10 seconds rest. As the training session progresses you will find your heart rate stays at the higher end meaning bigger overall calorie consumption in less time. An interval session like this would be for 20-45 minutes duration only. The question is; are shorter, intensive, training sessions more or less beneficial to steady-state cardio? In short the answer is yes, most people can achieve maximal health benefits in minimal time. This is because most people prefer sustaining a higher effort in a shorter training period, and it saves us time in our already busy lives. Several studies have shown HIIT may help you burn more calories than you would with other forms of exercise. This is partly due to HIIT’s impressive ability to increase your metabolic rate for hours after the exercise, i.e we burn more calories at rest because our resting heart rate is still elevated due to repeatedly raising it above 85% during the training session.
Overall HIIT produces the same health benefits as other forms of exercise in a shorter amount of time such as reducing blood pressure, reducing sugar and insulin resistance, interestingly it could be more effective in torching body fat that steady-state (repetitive movement) cardio.
It’s worth noting that you don’t have to jump around to achieve the benefits of HIIT. For those who cant do any impact then a spin class, swimming intervals, static bike, rower, or stepper machine would be welcome and effective alternatives. There are body weight HIIT classes available to perform at home or at the gym, the trademarked ones are called Metafit, Insanity, Les Mills Grit Cardio.
There are even classes that combine HIIT with weight training, these are Kettlebells, Les Mills Grit Strength and CrossFit. In a similar form one could do a weights training session with bursts of high intensity cardio between weight lifting sets to really up the calorie burn and get fitter faster, for example fast press ups, burpees or running on the spot instead of having a complete rest between resistance sets.
Team sports and games are fun and a great way to exercise whilst making friends. The only down side is that they are often stop-start, which doesn’t count as steady-state cardio, and team sports often don’t repeatedly raise the heart rate above 85% for it to count as interval training either.
Despite this ultimately the most important thing is to find a form of movement that you enjoy, see as leisure and are consistent with. It could be an idea to suggest to your team a fun group HIIT interval or HIIT circuits’ session together. This could be enjoyed on the days between playing e.g netball, to keep fit for matches and increase everyone’s athletic ability, whist still maintaining that team comradely.
Ideally we should train at all different heart rate levels so a combination throughout the week of various types of cardio, resistance, and HIIT sessions would be perfect essential body movement.
Posture and Hip Health
Chronic stress and trauma creates rigidity and tension within the body tissues that leave our responses less adaptable and link them to inflammatory and structural issues. Our modern living environment of sitting at desks and for prolonged periods in transportation means we have tight hip flexors, and rounded shoulders.
This has a knock on affect on our posture due to a weakening of our core muscles, specifically causing our abdominals and glutes (butts) to go to sleep. This in turn creates knee pain, back pain, and difficulty balancing as our abs and glutes are no longer holding our skeleton up, so our backs, knees, hips etc have to take the strain. In general as a nation our glutes are under activated and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to activate them as they are massively connected to our bodies as a whole.
When a muscle in our anatomy is not firing correctly it upsets the whole chain reaction up and down our bodies. If you sit down a lot during the day for work and only had time for one muscle training session a week, it would be fundamental to include the following stretches, rows and to train your glutes: -
Stretch your hip flexors and chest (below)
Resistance rows to pull rounded shoulders back to realign and correct posture (below)
Mobilise your hips and train your glutes (below)
Hip flexion is key to glute activation. Tip: Always stretch the opposite (antagonistic) muscle to the one you are training, prior and during the training session, this will help you activate the target muscle. In the case of training glutes always stretch your hip flexors and quadriceps, front of thighs (below)
Can we speed up how we lose body fat?
If losing body fat and toning up is your goal (let's be honest who doesn't have this goal) then alongside a healthy diet without processed foods, fasted cardio may be the answer. The BBC have recently screened a programme revealing a study on just this ‘The big experiment; how can I get my body to burn more fat without doing more exercise?’ Interestingly all body builders and fitness model competitors still to this day employ the fasted cardio method to lose the last bit of body fat before a competition.
Try exercising within 30 minutes of waking, only consume black tea or coffee if you need something to wake yourself up (no milk) and try either my workout program at home (with or without weights), get out in the fresh air and do some 2 minute fast walk into 1 minute jog intervals, or if you have a local gym try doing intervals on a gym machine such as the stepper (e.g. 1 minute 90% effort, 2 minutes 75% effort), for a total of 30-45 mins, and no more than 30 mins total time at 90% effort. Then have breakfast within the next hour.
Group exercise can be far more motivational, good options for fasted cardio are Body Combat, Spin, and HIIT. In fact Body Combat (pictured below) is great for working off frustration as its punch and kick routines are inspired by mixed martial arts.
If you are suffering from chronic stress however, or a health condition that increases the stress hormone Cortisol, such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) or Fibromyalgia (FMA), then it is important to NOT do cardiovascular exercise first thing in the morning, and especially not fasted. This is because it will increase Cortisol levels further, which in turn makes you more stressed and can hinder fat loss. Cortisol can cause fat gain, especially around the belly and organs, it also increases muscle break down, which is exactly the opposite of what we want.
Fasted exercise can increase the risk of muscle atrophy which is why its important to do it for no more than 45 minutes and to feed immediately afterwards, and another reason why it isn’t suitable for those with high Cortisol levels. Instead those with impaired adrenal gland should focus on Yoga, Pilates and Resistance (weight) training and do any additional cardio’ or HIIT training in the afternoon/evening.
How to effectively structure frequent training into your weekly schedule?
Below I have suggested a weekly training plan that’s effective for boosting health, losing body fat and building lean tissue (muscle). At least one of our weekly muscle, or resistance training sessions needs to be specific because most adults have developed mild to moderate muscular imbalances due to modern day living. This means identifying the body areas that don’t develop or tone up as fast as the rest, or identifying the muscles needed to correct one’s posture. Focused training on these areas will reduce niggles in the lower back and joints, whilst encouraging visual symmetry and balance within one’s physique. If you have great posture and are unsure which muscles to focus your specific muscle training session on then do 1-3 full body resistance sessions a week for 3 months, take pictures before and after, then decide if you have any areas that need more specific training.
Rest is as important as training, as a general rule, have at least 1 day between full body resistance sessions, and two days between repeated training on a specific muscle group. Cardio can be done on consecutive days but limit jumping types of HIIT to twice a week; with at least two sleep cycles between them. Mind and body practices can be done daily.
Feel free to change to times and days you train to suit your life.
Full Body Resistance Class: Body Pump, Kettlercise, Circuits, My Program (with or without weights), Home workout with a few weights
Mind and Body: Pilates, Yoga, Body Balance, Meditation, Tai Chi
Specific Muscle Training: e.g. Muscles to correct posture: glutes, back, abs and Shoulders
Cardio / HIIT: Machines: Running, Stepper, Rower Classes: Body Combat, Metafit, Grit, Insanity, Spin
Home: My program performed at intervals, walking or running intervals outside, HIIT home apps on a tablet
How much exercise is enough / too much?
One exercise session is better than none, and four weekly essential movement sessions are better than one but how much is too much? The third table above detailing a weekly training schedule for those seeking elite fitness shows close to the maximum amount of training one should do. It will require a healthy lifestyle of regular healthy meals and plenty of sleep to support the training demands too.
If you are unsure on either how to sleep better or how to eat healthily then please see my previous Stress Series blogs, part one and part two respectively, that focus on these areas. One should feel energised, empowered, and happy after training, or relaxed and calm after doing a mind and body session. One should never feel drained, unhappy or ravenous.
Symptoms of exercising too much:
· A plateau or drop in training progress
· An increase in musculoskeletal injuries
· Increased frequency of illness
· Feeling exhausted, rather than energized, after exercise
· Disrupted sleep
· Moodiness, a short fuse, or depression.
· Insatiable appetite
Training the same muscle group twice in one day actually reduces the effectiveness of the first training session. This was found by Manchester Metropolitan University Research and published in the Sports Journal in 2017.
Walking into a gym can be daunting especially when one is unsure how to train effectively and finds it difficult to motivate oneself. I don’t know many individuals who can motivate themselves every week, day in day out, so rest assured it’s completely normal. Classes are fantastic, especially trademarked ones (Les Mills, Kettlercise, Metafit, Insanity, Pilates, Yoga, Spin) as they are standardised to be an effective workout, often in less than an hour.
You get the help of a qualified instructor, great music, the motivation of being in a group of like-minded people, it forces you to take a break from your phone, and there’s no waiting for machines in the gym. If you exercise at home, put your phone on silent and out of sight, turn the Television off, and schedule essential, uncompromising ‘me time’. Be mindful of why you are exercising / taking a leisure time out:
Essential movement helps us clear our minds, helps us feel energised and healthy, it helps us to be more organised.
Mind and body practices are very calming, and HIIT and resistance training helps us to be resilient and deal with stress more successfully.
Remember you are in full control of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours; it just takes that realisation for it to come into fruition.
Like with any new skill at first it may be difficult, but once you start to practice it becomes easier and also fits into the natural routine of your life.
Do this for you, no one else, and always focus on being healthier, it's more motivating than thinking you need to lose weight.
Most importantly love yourself, and appreciate what your body can do right now.
Now a note on Instagram ‘models’; pictures of Instagram models could actually de-motivate you by undermining your self esteem and promote narrow body ideals. Some put lengthy and interesting posts about fitness tips and exercises that you may find useful, though be aware most are not qualified personal trainers.
I know from being friends with a few fitness models that most fitness models do NOT stay lean all year round; females in particular have to gain a healthy amount of body fat in between fitness events for their hormonal health and to aid muscle building. Many have a plethora of professional photographs, often photo-shopped, that they drop into their social media throughout the year to maintain the impression that they are ‘ripped’ all year round.
If an Instagram model makes you question your own body then un-follow them. Remember you now have fitness knowledge, and with knowledge comes motivation.
Essential Movement Part B and My Workout For You
Look out for my next blog - in part B I will be reviewing the latest protein supplements, and I have also put together two short training programs. One program incorporates hip health and glute activation, and the other is a progressive full body resistance workout that can also be used for HIIT training when performed at fast aced intervals.
For an alternative calming Yoga flow and relaxation stretch please see my previous blog of the Stress series: ‘Part 1 Relaxation and Sleep’.
Following on from this the concluding blog in the series is ‘Part 6: Skin Health’, as well as my review on Manchester’s Wellness Festival. Like I said at the start, September is the best time to find motivation to culture new fitness and wellness habits before the Festive Season descends.
Essential daily movement has benefits that expand far beyond the balance of our internal hormones, blood sugars, reducing visceral fat around our organs, or reducing our waistlines and increasing our physical strength. In a world where being stressed and super busy makes us feel out of control, often working to a higher powers’ tight deadline, exercise helps us to release endorphins, find clarity of mind and control in the way we think and what we do.
The more we engage in a physical activity day after day, the more in control of our behaviour we feel, and this filters into feeling more in control of the rest of our life. Exercise helps to distract us away from what is worrying us, and thus resolve stress and anxiety.
Essential movement helps us to organise essential ‘me-time’ time when our lives are particularly hectic. This helps us feel organised, balanced and helps us develop self worth. The physiological benefits we get from socializing with friends are magnified if it’s combined with some kind of physical activity.
So what are you waiting for - grab your best friends and do a group exercise class together before your next coffee catch up.
For further reading and evidential research into the content of this blog please see, or Google, the American and British Journals of Sports Medicine, the Les Mills Fit Planet blog, and Michael Mosley’s research.
About Our Author: Lucinda Abell is a Level 3 Personal Trainer, Group Exercise Instructor, UK Bikini Fitness Finalist and Sports Science Lecturer who is based in Cheshire.
Lucinda also works as a Freelance Designer and studied her Fashion Design Technology degree at the London College of Fashion, later going to specialise in Printed Textiles in her Masters degree at the Royal College of Art. You can discover more about Lucinda HERE