In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the UK government announced a nationwide lockdown on Monday 23 March, to delay the spread of infection by enforcing social distancing. All ‘nonessential’ businesses have been closed, such as restaurants, cafes, cinemas, shops, and gyms – including outdoor gyms. The Science Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has advised that social distancing measures may be required until the autumn.
Now whether you’re a seasoned freelancer or you’ve just started working from home, it’s important to exercise regularly as part of a healthy lifestyle. Not only does it keep you physically fit – too sedentary a lifestyle can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer – but physical exercise can actually reduce stress. In fact, regular exercise is top of Public Health England’s list of suggestions for how to look after mental health during this worrying and uncertain period of social distancing and self-isolation.
If you know anyone who runs, they’ll have bored you about their ‘runner’s high’ – the release of hormones called ‘endorphins’ in the brain and nervous system, which act as natural painkillers and have a secondary, mood-lifting property. However it isn’t just running that has this kind of effect, but exercise in general.
According to the NHS, ‘Research suggests that regular exercise may be a more effective treatment for mild depression than antidepressants. Exercise helps boost levels of chemicals called serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which can lift your mood.’ Research from Exercise and Sports Science Australia states that physical exercise reduces stress by increasing the concentration of norepinephrine in the brain.
‘If exercise was a drug, it would be prescribed to everyone,’ fitness model and blogger Flora Beverly, or Food Fitness Flora, tells me. ‘The anti-depressive effects are better than some medications (and free of negative side-effects!) and for me, have been life changing.’
These chemical effects can all help to reduce the emotional intensity that comes with being stressed – so much so that in Professor Cary Cooper’s 10 points to reducing stress, also published by the NHS, ‘Be active’ is at the top of the list.
But it isn’t just these physiological effects that help: according to Professor Cooper, exercise can also serve as a welcome distraction, ‘clearing your thoughts and letting you deal with your problems more calmly.’ Similarly, the act of setting goals and achieving them, whether it’s deadlifting 80kg or running a mile without stopping, can have a hugely positive impact on mood and outlook.
‘People each have their preferences,’ Beverley tells me, ‘but for me, trail running and boxing are basically meditation – while you’re doing it you can’t concentrate on anything else or worry about the past or future. It’s the only time I’m truly living “in the moment” and it makes me feel invincible.’
Regular exercise can also reduce stress indirectly, by making you better at your work. As neuroscientist Ben Martynoga writes, improved cardiovascular fitness can produce a ‘memory-boosting’ effect, as aerobic exercise triggers a strong response in the hippocampus, which is ‘at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems’. Similarly, exercise can enhance your concentration: Martynoga describes observations made by one group of scientists that short bouts of aerobic exercise ‘improved the attention spans’ of schoolchildren.
More importantly for creative freelancers, physical exercise can actually increase creativity: psychologists from Stanford found that participants ‘exhibited a residual creative boost’ after walking. They concluded: ‘Walking opens up the free flow of ideas’. Exercise also, crucially, improves your quality of sleep.
With all this in mind, here are three suggestions of exercises that you can easily enjoy during lockdown, self-isolation, or just a day of working from home:
Running is probably the ultimate form of cardiovascular exercise: it’s easy, convenient and addictive. There are also countless ways to make it more interesting: simply change your route, or alternate between longer runs and shorter interval training. Not only will the sunlight increase your vitamin D intake, but getting outside and breathing-in the fresh air will also offer a vital change of scene and prevent cabin fever.
According to the government’s new lockdown guidance, people may leave their homes for ‘one form of exercise a day such as a run, swim, or cycle’; and Public Health England have stated that it is safe to leave the house ‘for a walk or exercise outdoors if you stay more than 2 metres from others’. If you haven’t run in a while or you feel out of shape, start slower and shorter with brisk walks and work your way up to a 5k.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
There are two types of cardiovascular exercise: low-intensity steady state (LISS) exercises, such as running, walking, swimming, or cycling, which involve maintaining a regular pace over a longer period of time; and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves multiple quick, intense bouts of exercise, alternating with quick rest periods.
Typically, HIIT sessions are far shorter – some can take just 15 minutes – but they burn far more energy, with studies suggesting that they can increase your metabolic rate for up to 14 hours after the workout. High-intensity exercise has also been found to have particular mental health benefits, with research finding it can regulate brain function and ‘positively benefit cognition.’ Not only are HIIT circuits short, but they are also easy to complete in any garden or any room with a few square feet of floor space.
You can find plenty of HIIT circuits and home workouts available online, but one of the best is Joe Wicks, also known as the Body Coach. His exercise videos range in type and intensity but all are accessible, with many of them requiring no equipment. It helps that he is also the most personable of the many online exercise gurus, with an infectious good mood – and all of his videos are free.
Cardio isn’t everything, especially if you already enjoy training with weights at the gym. One option is the pull-up bar, which can be fitted to any door frame or used on the floor to enhance push-ups and sit-ups. These generally range in price from about £15 to £50. Another option, though slightly more expensive, is a pair of adjustable dumbbells, which can change weight and therefore be adapted to a wider variety of exercises.
These range wildly in price from £40 to as much as £500, depending on the brand. A third option is a set of resistance bands; these are the most versatile of all, and can be used around the home to perform many pull and push exercises from bicep curls to lat pull downs. These generally range from less than £15 to £40.
But it doesn’t really matter what particular form of exercise you do – as long as you create a habit and a daily structure. ‘The best way to get started is just to get started,’ says Beverley. ‘Get outdoors and move, or put on some music and dance. No form of movement is wrong – if it feels good, do it!’