Tips for teachers - managing your own mental health: exercise

Stress is a normal part of life and a little stress can be a good thing, because it often motivates us to get on with the job in hand. This is part of our fight, flight, or freeze response, something that has been handed down the evolutionary chain from our ancestors. The problem is that it is designed to prepare us for physical action. However, as a teacher, when feeling stressed you could be in a classroom, or alone at your computer preparing lessons and therefore you don’t have any need to ‘run away’ from anything. When faced with stressful situations, our bodies produce cortisol and adrenaline leaving us flushed with these hormones, that without physical action, we may struggle get rid of. The risk is that we normalise how this makes us feel and stop noticing the physical responses of increased heart rate and breathing.

Dealing with the accumulation of cortisol and adrenalin in our bodies is crucial and can be done through exercise. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a marathon runner or a ‘gym bunny’ to experience the positive effects. A study by Bristol University, showed that doing some exercise at lunch time boosted mood by 41% and improved the ability to deal with stress by 20%. A further trial on the effects of park walks and relaxation exercises during lunch breaks also showed that a lunch break even without the exercise gave an opportunity to recover, promoted detachment from the stresses of work and increased relaxation, having a restorative effect in terms of personal well-being. Government guidance suggests we do 150 minutes of moderate exercise, something that gets you a little out of breath, per week. That’s just over 20 minutes a day.

So, how does exercise help stress levels?

Exercise increases blood flow and levels of dopamine, a chemical which is released during all pleasurable activities, and a lack of it has been linked to depression. During exercise you also get an increase of noradrenaline which regulates your mood and helps with memory retrieval and attention. Serotonin is also increased and a lack of this is often evident in people experiencing depression, anxiety and a range of physical problems including obesity. Exercise therefore helps to promote the production of helpful chemicals and uses up unhelpful ones.

And the good news is that all forms of exercise count! Aerobic exercise is great, yoga is effective, and it is recommended that you incorporate a little strength training as well. This doesn’t have to be complicated, there are lots of free and easy ways to exercise. Try going for a walk or do strength training using your own body weight, without any need for equipment. There’s also free online resources for yoga if you want to try something a little less strenuous.

Dr Chatterjee, resident doctor on BBC One’s Breakfast Show, suggests that the world is your gym, so exercise is as simple as getting outside for a walk or a gentle run - no gym membership required! He suggests aiming for 10,000 steps a day as a starting point. While this number of steps is simply an arbitrary goal, it is a goal nevertheless and having a goal has been shown to provide motivation. Walking, he says, is a gateway to other exercise. Once you feel yourself getting fitter and your well-being is improving it will encourage you to take further action. He does also say that you can’t exercise to outdo a bad nutritional intake, so a good balanced diet is also key. I’ll talk about nutrition in more detail in my next blog.

You should consult your doctor before commencing exercise, especially if you are new to it or have any health conditions. You should walk before you run - literally and metaphorically! Build up slowly and set small, achievable goals.

Tips

  • Start small and build up slowly. Go for a walk, gradually getting a little quicker until you feel a little breathless.
  • Exercise regularly - aim for 20 minutes a day to start with.
  • Exercise with a friend – there’s lots of evidence that committing to exercise with a friend limits procrastination.
  • Plan ahead for the week and write down when you are going to exercise – there is evidence that simply writing something down increases the likelihood of it happening.
  • Prepare the night before. Put your trainers by the door and the clothes you will wear at the end of the bed if you are going to exercise on a morning. Make up a bag with what you need so it’s ready to go if you are going to exercise during your lunch break at work. Essentially – remove as many barriers as you can
  • I recommend morning or lunch time exercise. Motivation is finite – you run out of it as the day goes on. If you’re leaving your exercise until the evening do it as soon as you finish work or get home. Once you’re in the house and settled you’re probably not going anywhere.
  • If you are increasing your exercise the same tips apply – workout with a friend, prepare, and get it done early. Classes work really well as you tend to try harder when others are there and you’re being supervised by an instructor who can check your technique and make sure you’re not over doing it.
  • Most importantly, enjoy it! Find something you like doing – there are so many options, so find the one that suits you.

If you enjoyed this blog, read more from Stephen and his tips for managing your mental health through sleep, organisation and nutrition.

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