This blog has been written by Jess Prince (Mental Health Advisor and Welfare Consultant for Wellbeing Services) and Anna Janota (Sports Welfare Consultant for Wellbeing Services and Sports Park).
Now more than ever distractions that support and promote our mental health in this time of lockdown are being highlighted across the internet, from pets to baking to online quizzes and choirs to the next X Factor star. Whilst it’s great to have such a wealth of options, it can be overwhelming to know where to start.
The benefits of exercise
So why don’t we begin by looking at how our mental health and physical health is intrinsically linked? When you exercise, chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood are released. If you exercise regularly or keep active, it can reduce your stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, help with recovery from mental health difficulties and improve your sleep.
The relationship between mental and physical health
So how are exercise and the mind linked up? Exercising pumps blood to the brain, which can help you to think more clearly and increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. It also increases the connections between the nerve cells in the brain. This improves your memory and helps protect your brain against injury and disease.
It is great to see all the benefits from exercising but the reality of being able to regularly exercise or even be active, especially during lockdown life, is a lot harder.
There are many barriers to exercising (physical, psychological, mental ill health, lack of space, lack of time etc.) but one thing that is key for all exercise is breathing. So let’s start with a basic breathing technique that is accessible for everyone to try, called the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
This should only be carried out in a setting where you’re fully prepared to relax and feel safe. Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor, think about your posture. If you want to, you can do this breathing technique lying down. Prepare for the practice by resting the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, right behind your top front teeth. You’ll need to keep your tongue in place throughout. It takes practice to keep from moving your tongue when you exhale.
The following steps should all be carried out in the cycle of one breath:
- First, let your lips part. Make a whooshing sound, exhaling completely through your mouth.
- Next, close your lips, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head.
- Then, for seven seconds, hold your breath.
- Make another whooshing sound and exhale from your mouth for eight seconds.
When you inhale again, you initiate a new cycle of breath. Practice this pattern for four full breaths.
The held breath (for seven seconds) is the most important part of this practice. It’s also recommended that you only practice 4-7-8 breathing for four breaths when you’re first starting out. You can gradually work your way up to eight full breaths.
This breathing exercise can put you into a deep state of relaxation so please ensure you don’t have to be alert straight after doing it.
Below is a quote which highlights our thoughts around the importance of the breath:
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”
― Amit Ray, Om Chanting and Meditation
We’ll be looking into other aspects of mental and physical health in future blogs. We hope you found this helpful and would really value your comments, feedback and suggested topics for future blogs. We hope that our small blog will start a wider discussion around mental health and exercise.
Please send your comments to: and mark FAO Jess Prince/Anna.