Last Monday was Blue Monday, reportedly the saddest day of the year, and this year many feared it would feel sadder than ever. But we at Sportside think we have a simple antidote to this sadness. All through lockdown we have been urging Sportsiders to keep running, and keep smiling. And, pleasingly, research has been released this week that shows the two go hand-in-hand.
The fact that exercise is good for your mood has long been established, but now a researcher at King’s College, London has sought to prove the point, using a portable EEG to monitor the brain during exercise.
Sports tech platform engadget reported Dr Brendan Stubbs’ work last week, exploring the relationship between mental health and physical wellbeing. Dr Stubbs’ work was undertaken for the famous Asics trainer brand and his results were remarkable.
He used a portable EEG (electroencephalogram – a device to monitor brain activity) and attached them to three elite athletes and six ‘everyday’ athletes (ie people who do at least 150 minutes exercise a week). Each wore the EEG headset at rest and then exercised for 20 minutes. They then repeated this multiple times.
Incredibly, results from the scans saw an 18% increase in the athlete’s ability to relax, a 28% decrease in rash decision making and a 29% improvement in stress reliance. There was also a 58% reduction in cognitive stress (anxiety, forgetfulness and disorganisation), a 26% increase in processing data, and a 21% boost in memory.
Interestingly, the research also found that, for non-elite athletes, the mental health benefits of exercise were greater than for the elites.
Stubbs told Engadget that he thought that this would be because professionals have already “mastered” their sport and have less brain work while they exercise. He also found that runners who ran in groups saw better results than those who ran in isolation.
Meanwhile a Public Health England survey over the new year found that 80% of people aged over 18 in this country have made the decision to change their lifestyle in 2021.
The same survey last year found that only 43% wanted to up their exercise levels, lose weight or eat more healthily in 2020 but now, with the knowledge that being obese significantly increases your chance of being admitted to intensive care with Covid-19 compared with those with a healthy body mass index, those numbers have radically altered.
Public Health England (PHE) has launched its latest ‘Better Health new year’ campaign with support through a variety of tools and apps, including the updated NHS 12 Week Weight Loss app. Currently 28% of adults in England are obese and 36% are overweight.
The survey also showed that 35% of over 18s were snacking on unhealthy food and drink at least once a day (compared with 26% last year), 30% said they exercised less in the second half of 2020 while smokers and drinkers also were indulging in cigarettes and alcohol more than before.
Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at PHE said: “The past year has been immensely challenging and being stuck at home much more this year, understandably, has seen some unhealthy habits creeping up on us all.
“But our survey shows the vast majority of us want to do something positive this year to improve our health and now is a good time for a reset, whether it be eating more healthily, being a healthier weight, getting more active, stopping smoking or doing more to look after our mental health.”
Public Health Minister Jo Churchill, added: “We know many people want to make changes for a healthier lifestyle and we want to help them. So the Better Health campaign provides a range of tools, like Couch to 5K, to support people in their choices. This, together with the government’s world-leading obesity strategy, will help motivate and support everyone to take up healthier routines in 2021.”
The PHE campaign targets all adults over 18, with a focus on those aged 40 to 60 and those groups most affected, including those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities and those with long-term health conditions.
And writing for the Sports Think Tank, John Oxley, an executive coach with 25 years experience in leisure, says that the focus must be on getting people into the great outdoors.
He writes: “At the risk of disloyalty to the places that have been my life for over 30 years, those leisure centres, gyms and studios [only] satisfy the needs of around 15% of the population. The importance of those facilities to those regular participants of course is significant and their closure during the restrictive periods will have had a profound effect upon many of them. [But] to build a policy call around 15% of the nation, however, seems ill-conceived.
“The challenge is not to drive more and more people into facilities. The health of our communities will be determined by how effective the whole physical activity and sport ecosystem is in aggregating its effort and elevating the value of exercise into the consciousness of our nation.
“Try as we might over the course of the last 20 years, participation in regular exercise in facilities has not had a transformational effect upon overall participation across the UK. Despite quality being better, despite capacity increasing (more facilities) and despite the cost of ‘fitness’ never being cheaper, increases in participation have been marginal.
“Our physical activity and sport eco-system will thrive and prosper ONLY if we can promote more effectively, the rich diversity of opportunity that exists and find new and innovative ways to engage more people in our communities.”
Oxley advocates increasing the value of exercise” in the minds of our communities”, showing the opportunities that are out there to be physically active away from gyms and leisure centres. His belief is that by encouraging more people to get active that way will ultimately benefit gyms as people come to understand the value of exercise more.
The message is clear: getting outside for exercise can uplift your mood and the more people who can do it, the more the nation will get a lift just when it needs it most.