COVID-19 and the Mental/Physical Health Connection

Couch

Researchers have long known that there is a connection between physical and mental health. Physical activity releases hormones that are mood lifters; exercise is not necessarily a cure-all for emotional or mental ills, but it is a contributing factor in better outcomes.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has taken a huge physical toll in our country–not just in terms of the 600,000+ who have died of COVID-related illnesses, but also in terms of the tens of millions who were sickened by the virus but survived (some with long-lasting effects). Even those who were not infected have suffered stress from the situation. Some of that can be attributed to the relationship between lower levels of physical activity during the pandemic (due to closed gyms, group classes being limited, etc.) and negative mental health outcomes.

Idea Fitness Journal’s September-October, 2021, issue reported on a recent study by McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, Canada; the research looked into why people seemed less motivated to be physically active and what the perceived barriers were. The data showed that those whose mental health had worsened the most were also those who were the least physically active; that same group also showed the most improvement when they became more active.

Based on the study, the article suggested that individuals can become more active (and have better mental health outcomes) by:

–Scheduling activities (to eliminate decision-making and choice

–Do activites they personally enjoy

–Listen to their favorite music

–Train with a friend

–Try lower-intensity activiites

–Get creative; use body weight or whatever is available

–Go outside and be in nature.

Of course, another option for those who are demotivated because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, is to turn to on-line classes and training that can be done from home.

The issue is a complicated one and, as I said earlier, more exercise is not a panacea. There can be deeper issues at work that make the thought of more physical activity anxiety-inducing. As always, it is best to check in with healthcare professional if depression or anxiety prevent a person from carrying out activities of daily living, including exercise.

For most people, however, it is just a matter of planning ahead and taking the first step. The rest should come more easily.

The Right Kinds of Exercise for Older Adults

Exercise class

There is more research out that overturns the idea that exercise for older adults needs to be gentle and not very challenging (kind of like the picture above?).

The most recent issue of IDEA Fitness Journal discusses two recent studies.

One, conducted by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, was a longitudinal study that compared the effects of 5 years of supervised exercise training among those over 70 years of age (men and women). The results showed that all types of physical activity were beneficial, but that those who participated in HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) had a slightly lower risk of dying during those 5 years. In other words, there is a likelihood that HIIT exercises can increase longevity. The study was published in the The BMJ of the British Medical Association, and recommended that HIIT exercise be incorporated in the physical activity that seniors do.

For those unfamiliar, HIIT means that there are intervals (timed periods) of more intense exercise interspersed in more moderate exercises. For instance, someone going on walk for five minutes could walk for one minute at a regular pace followed by 20 seconds of more intense effort (faster or on an incline) then go back to regular pace, etc., until the 5 minutes are up. This elevates the heart rate and keeps it elevated throughout the workout; it is less intense that 5 minutes of straight running or speed-walking (which many people cannot sustain) but more challenging than simply walking for that time (which may provided more limited benefits).

The second study by University of Colorado researchers, published in Physical Therapy, showed that HIIT exercises can be applied to resistance (weight) training in a PT setting. It is safe and effective and can even double physical function in older adults in rehab after hospitalization; this can result in increased care and reduced costs.

All in all, this is nothing new. It only adds to the research out there that shows that there are many different approaches to training older adults. Of course, each individual is different; some older adults are frail while others are active. A good personal trainer will understand the complexities and create an appropriate plan for his/her client. This research, however, is important for the client and the trainer to take into account; going harder can have verifiable positive results.

Exploring Weight Bias

Scales

Over the past few months, our nation has been have a much-needed reckoning with the place of racism, bias, inequality and prejudice in our society. Many have come to realize that the issue is much deeper than we had imagined–perhaps because we are shielded from it–and that it is built into our society. Although we may not see ourselves as prejudiced, we participate in a system that has perpetuated injustice for centuries.

With all the awareness around the challenges (a euphemism to be sure) faced by people of color and members of the GLBTQ+ community, there are still others who are targets of bigoted behavior. Some of it is subtle and other expressions are much more explicit.

The most recent issue of IDEA Fitness Journal featured an article on Weight Bias. The article by Cassandra Padgett and Dr. Natalie Digate Muth, entitled “Weight Bias in the Health and Fitness Industry” focuses on what this means for us in the business of helping people to become more healthy, but it also explores the ways in which society views people who are overweight or obese. The article draws upon research that shows that “People who have a higher body weight are vulnerable to stereotypes, bias, bullying, and discrimination in our society.” [The Rudd Center, 2020]

Many of us will recognize this if we think about it. It is not okay to judge based on skin color, religion, sexual identity and orientation, country of origin, etc., but when it comes to weight somehow we get really judgmental. This is a problem in society in general, but this bias has greater impact in the fitness industry. The article notes that the bias can be explicit; in other words, there is conscious discrimination against people with higher body weights. There can also be implicit bias; it is often automatic and outside of our awareness. It often results from the “collective ideology of the fitness industry, stereotypes, or lack of personal experience or understanding of the complex etiology of obesity.”

Padgett and Digate Muth address the ways in which the industry can begin to remediate these issues. They also challenge personal trainers and related professional trainers to rethink how we address weight and its overall effect on total health. Reasons for obesity are complex and are influenced by a number of factors beyond just calories eaten. A person’s weight is not a reflection of their character or what they can contribute.

It is good that our society is beginning to sensitize itself to the ways that the “ins” treat the “outs.” This starts with a realization that there are “ins” and “outs.” There is lots of work to do out there. We can do much better as a nation than we are. I know that I have participated in a system (our society but more particularly the fitness industry) that has stigmatized those with higher body weights. While I cannot change the past, I can alter the way I approach people with higher weights and obesity. Rather than being an obstacle to better health, I hope that I can create a welcoming and affirming space for everyone regardless of their body fat percentage.

This is just one more facet of our national movement toward a more just, kind and healthy society.