By Alice BELLICHA, teacher and researcher in STAPS (physical activity for health), Université Paris-Est Créteil Val-de-Marne (UPEC)
After months of forced immobilization, the return of sunny days is the perfect opportunity to get back to sport! Physical activity helps to take care of yourself, strengthen our bonds with others, reduce anxiety and hope to live in good health into old age.
Containment has of course been a necessity to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has also been a source of stress and psychological tension for each of us. Confined, we lost our bearings. We now need to find them, and physical activity can help.
The confinement made us face our vulnerability, the deprivation of liberty, a feeling of loneliness, sometimes the loss of our job. If some people have managed to take the opportunity to take time for themselves, ask questions about their life, change their habits, experience the benefits of physical activity, many of us have had a hard time with the confinement that has had serious consequences. negative consequences on our physical and mental health.
The figures published by Public Health France show it clearly: decrease in physical activity, increase in snacking, increase in alcohol and tobacco consumption, weight gain, sleep disorders, depression, etc.
Deconfined, we are now free to move and move around. Now is the time to seize this freedom that is offered to us to practice a physical activity to find our bearings, our health and our links with others.
1. Physical activity to take care of yourself
Our health is often our first motivation to practice physical activity. Its benefits are no longer to be demonstrated: increase in life expectancy, prevention and control of cardio-metabolic diseases, prevention of the appearance and recurrence of certain cancers, prevention of cognitive decline linked to aging, maintenance of autonomy… To achieve these benefits, it is not necessary to be a seasoned athlete, but a regular practice of physical activity of moderate intensity is recommended.
The benefits on our morale are a little less known, although they are the subject of many studies. The reward circuit is activated after physical activity, in particular by the secretion of dopamine, which gives us instant pleasure. This effect appears from the first session of physical activity, but it strengthens over time: after a few weeks, we thus take more pleasure in practicing physical activity.
Physical activity also provides a feeling of well-being, calm, and reduces anxiety. This effect is well known to joggers who gave it the name of « runner’s high », which could be translated as “jogger’s euphoria”. But running is not the only physical activity that can provide this feeling of calm: walking, cycling or any other moderate-intensity endurance physical activity (which requires effort without causing shortness of breath) practiced during at least 20 to 30 minutes is sufficient. Physical activity thus helps to prevent and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
2. Physical activity to strengthen our bonds with others
In addition to improving our morale, physical activity strengthens our social interactions. Here is an example: on days when they do physical activity together, spouses are more satisfied with their marriage, experience more positive events (providing help and comfort, sharing hobbies, feeling loved) and fewer negative events (argument, lack of time for the other, broken promise, etc.). Activities such as walking, dancing or yoga allow us to synchronize our movements with others, which leads to unexpected benefits: cohesion within the group, attention to others, sensitivity to what others are experiencing. Thus, after a physical activity alone or in a group, we are more inclined to cooperate, trust and interact.
Strengthening our bonds with others would be a very effective solution to improve our health. Many studies show that belonging to a group (and a fortiori in several groups) increases life expectancy, improves depressive symptoms, reduces cognitive decline. Thus, a person receiving quality social support benefits from an improvement in self-esteem, their ability to adapt to difficult situations, their mental well-being and their physical health.
3. Physical activity to reduce anxiety
Sébastien Bohler, French doctor in neuroscience, insists in his latest book on the benefits of ritual in times of uncertainty.
Our brains love repetition and dread the unknown, and the uncertainty of the pandemic is straining it. The ritual is used by caregivers to help people with psychological difficulties. Indeed, the ritual attempts to remedy the unknown by bringing order to the environment to create a fixed, stable and predictable framework.
In other words, the ritual acts as a brain calming agent. This is how the ritualized practice of physical activity makes us feel good.
4. Physical activity, a way of life adopted by centenarians
How do we live in the regions of the world where there are the greatest number of centenarians? This is the question explored by Dan Buettner, explorer, journalist and public health actor in the United States. He brought together the following few common criteria: moving naturally, not eating to satiety, indulging in a small drink, having a life goal, slowing down the pace, keeping in touch with nature, developing a sense of family and quality relationships accompanied by a sense of belonging.
In summary, here are some tips to remember to practice a physical activity that strengthens your health, your morale and your connection to others:
• Take advantage of the good weather to go out walk, alone or with loved ones, focusing on the present moment.
• If you can, do some physical activity. in nature (park, wooded path, etc.).
• Register rituals in your daily agenda: plan your physical activity sessions in advance, download your favorite podcast to listen to while walking, call your friends during the break during your walk …
• Join a group physical activity online or at a club.
• Secure yourself ambitious, but realistic and progressive goals, and use new technologies to track your progress.
• Encourage yourself by offering you satisfecit and small rewards.
The original version of this article was published in The Conversation.