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Exercise and mental well-being

06 May 2019, at 9:30am

Finding the time to do a form of exercise you enjoy could make you happier, healthier and better at your job

Exercise lowers our blood pressure, improves our metabolism, etc. Many of us would agree that as a by-product of exercise, we feel happier and better-focused, and our self-regulation improves. Now, we have credible evidence that exercise also makes us better at our jobs by improving our cognitive function.

Studies indicate that our mental firepower is directly linked to our physical regimen. And nowhere are the implications more relevant than to our performance at work. Consider the cognitive benefits you can expect as a result of incorporating regular exercise into your week: improved concentration, sharper memory, faster learning; prolonged mental stamina, enhanced creativity and lower stress.

Even I can’t argue that membership of David Lloyd should be part of our CPD budget (although that would be nice). However, more and more of the larger corporates are starting to appreciate the link between the fitness levels of their staff and their personal productivity levels.

So how do we spread the knowledge that subsidising gym membership can improve the standard of practice and subsequently profitability? Individually, we can appreciate more than ever that exercise should become part of our working life. Improving our cognitive function at work goes hand in hand with a greater quality of life at work.

The term “work-life balance” insinuates that work is bad and life outside of work is good, and that we should try to balance the bad with the good. In fact, the lines are quite blurred between being in the practice and life outside of the workplace. Veterinary medicine is a vocation; not many of us truly forget about work the moment we leave the premises. So if we can be better and happier at work through exercising when off duty, surely our quality of life overall will improve. That, and we’ll be much nicer to be with.

Why do most of us exercise less than we wish we did? As vets, the reasons are obvious: not enough time, too exhausted, long hours, etc. These are legitimate reasons, not just lame excuses. But let’s be clear: what we really mean when we say we don’t have time for an activity is that we don’t consider it a priority given the time we have available.

And many of us continue to perceive exercise or gym membership as a luxury: an activity we would like to do if only we had more time. While exercise is a form of self-compassion, it should never be a guilty pleasure. Instead of viewing exercise as something selfish we do for ourselves – a personal indulgence that takes us away from our work – it’s time we started considering physical activity as part of the work itself.

Mindful vs mindless exercise

Vybar Cregan-Reid, nephew of Irish marathon runner Jim Hogan, travelled the world in search of the reasons people run. He loathes treadmills, calling them the equivalent of exercise junk food. “If you want to rescue some of your life from oblivion, stay off the treadmill,” he warns. Some people love the monotony of the treadmill. It can be a place to “switch off”, to exercise without really noticing; a form of mindlessness. If that works for you, brilliant.

Other forms of exercise where we “switch off” and focus only on the activity itself include tennis, football and rugby. Mindless exercise and escapism are like stepping off the chaotic hamster wheel of life for an hour for a breather while getting fit at the same time. Even as a mindfulness practitioner, I totally get that. And I do it regularly.

Others will benefit cognitively so much more by exercising in a mindful way – ie by exercising and acutely noticing their bodies, their breath and their surroundings.

For those of you who run outdoors, maybe try turning off the music and listening to yourself breathe; feel the surface beneath your feet and notice it more than ever before; look at your surroundings and pay attention – observe every different shade of green you run past; appreciate your ability to run, breathe and be more alive than when on the sofa. This is mindful running as opposed to mindless running.

The essential message is to find exercise you enjoy, and enjoy it as much as possible each time you do it. If you perceive it as a chore, not only will the mental benefits be much less, but you are more likely to give it up.

In Marketing Letters– a Journal of Research in Marketing, a recent article by Carolina Werle says that the framing of physical activity biases subsequent snacking: “The findings showed that when physical activity was perceived as fun (eg, when it is labelled as a scenic walk rather than an exercise walk), people subsequently consume less dessert at mealtime and consume fewer hedonic snacks. Engaging in a physical activity seems to trigger the search for reward when individuals perceive it as exercise but not when they perceive it as fun.” No dessert should be a “sin” or a “reward”. How can we really enjoy it if we label sugar like this? Exercise is fun, so we need no reward for doing it.

Regardless of how you go about incorporating exercise into your routine, reframing it as part of your job makes it a lot easier to make time for it. You’re not abandoning work. On the contrary: you’re ensuring that the hours you put in have more value.

Laura Woodward Counselling

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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