For many, day-to-day life in the pandemic has meant moving from one area of their living quarters to another. In addition, coronavirus cases and death surges, political chaos, high unemployment rates, and an uptake in social injustices have led to feelings of anxiety, frustration and depression. As such, it is unsurprising that mental health illnesses and substance abuse disorders have become more prevalent over the past year. Thus, we have been reminded constantly by health experts about the importance of exercise — not just because of our already limited physical movement each day but also because of the potential mental health benefits.
However, the resources and routines in the world of fitness have changed drastically. While fields like healthcare and retail have received substantial government aid, “the fitness industry has had to change [with little help], and its people have had to think on their feet: they have either completely sunk and gone or completely risen to the occasion,” says Samantha Russo, a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor and fitness nutrition specialist. Virtual classes may have become more popular, but fitness center closings have caused personal instructors to either be furloughed or to experience significant cuts in their salaries.
High school sports, once associated with cheering crowds atop bleachers, are now less energized in spirit. Aidan Chen, a captain of the Boston Latin School boys swim team, explains that, among numerous other changes, swim lanes are spread out to avoid close contact between swimmers, and team members not swimming during meets are expected to wear masks and distance themselves on the sidelines. Thus, “there was a certain amount of stress involved in undertaking this year’s season,” says Chen. “Beyond worrying about the health and safety of myself and my teammates, the unprecedented nature of conducting an in-person sports season within a year of remote learning felt daunting.” Although the opportunity to bond with other student athletes on bus rides and to cheer on teammates during meets was eliminated, Chen reflects that, fortunately, he and others were able to adapt to the changes required by new health guidelines and to overcome the unfamiliarity of the new season.
Despite noticeable changes in the routine of school sports, the effects of returning to a consistent fitness schedule are still overwhelmingly positive for mental and physical health. Due to lockdown, “I was unable to consistently practice and train over the past year, and thus felt unprepared to handle the rigors of a demanding sports season,” reflects Chen. However, “practices soon became the highlight of my day, providing me with … a fantastic break from the constant monotony of schoolwork, [leaving] me feeling more energized, motivated, and focused once I returned home.”
Unsurprisingly, there are scientific reasons for this phenomenon: “Exercising for at least twenty minutes a day helps reduce our vulnerability to suffering and better regulate our emotions,” explains Danielle Moskow, a clinical extern at McLean Hospital and Psychology Doctoral student at Boston University. “It helps release a buildup of endorphins, which can reduce our distress in the moment, [and] leads to an increase in brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has antidepressant effects.” Additionally, regular exercise increases levels of serotonin (the “happy” hormone), improving mood, appetite and sleep.
A nutritious diet, which often supplements a rigid physical fitness routine, is also important. Due to the inconveniences and health risks of shopping in public grocery stores during the pandemic, many have been buying frozen and over-processed foods in bulk. However, “eating regularly, and mindfully, are very important for regulating our emotions,” Moskow elucidates. “As the gut and brain are connected, we know that what we eat can impact how we feel.”
In fact, many studies link anxiety and depression to gut and nutritional imbalances. For example, excessive sugar and alcohol consumption can negatively impact mental health or lower our resistance to negative emotions. Instead, consuming fruits, vegetables and other whole foods of a variety of colors fuel our brain and body with beneficial nutrients, and they can even make exercise a more comfortable practice.
“Our gut is often referred to as the second brain… [and] it controls so much, from our mood to weight management to even our skin,” articulates Russo. “When you fuel yourself right, you feel good; when you feel good, you want to continue doing good things for your body; and the more you exercise, the more you build up your confidence.”
“In each and every sport, one can only benefit from consuming healthy foods, as athletes depend on peak performance from their bodies, something which only clean eating can provide,” concurs Chen. From personal experience, “[the benefits of eating healthy include] causing me to feel more energetic and lively, as well as promoting a healthier mindset regarding my body image and nutritional intake.” Nevertheless, for him, the benefits of the decision to become a member of the swim team still extend far beyond improved physical and mental health. The social connections and friendships made over the course of his five-year journey thus far as a student-athlete have been invaluable, while the sense of community and brotherhood has been unlike anything else: “After sharing countless experiences together, my teammates have become like my family.”
The benefits of exercise are endless, but getting into a fitness routine can be challenging. To those struggling with this, Russo recommends starting small and emphasizing the importance of slowly building good habits while scaling back bad habits. “It does not have to be so complicated, it does not have to be so rigid,” Russo explains. “You don’t have to be perfect all the time to feel really good.” Even simple tasks like walking outside and drinking more water can go a long way.
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has loosened its restrictions on mask-wearing, reporting that, in both indoor and outdoor settings (except where required by regulations like buses, planes, hospitals, and prisons), vaccinated individuals will not be required to wear masks. Especially for those who enjoy exercising outdoors (a great way to increase levels of vitamin D), this is encouraging news. With the country reopening, community guidelines relaxing, and some sense of normalcy returning, everyone has a reason to be happy. The warming weather is a great opportunity to get back into the routine of exercising regularly and eating healthy — this will be sure to boost mood, confidence and mindset even more!