We constantly preach that exercise benefits you both inside and out. It’s been well-reported that working out can positively impact your mental health, and as this month is Mental Health Awareness month, we’re bringing you a little happiness experiment from Cat Taylor - both a MoveGB member and a happiness coach.
Physical activity has been shown to sharpen the memory, improve creativity, strengthen muscles, bones and joints, increase energy levels, aid better sleep and reduce the risk of chronic disease...hell, it’s even been shown to make the brain bigger! However, what we’re keen to explore is plain and simple: Can exercise make you happier?
Can working out positively impact your mental health?
The Science Part:
In the late 1990’s Dr Martin Seligman developed Positive Psychology, with its catchy strapline “build what’s strong, don’t fix what’s wrong”. Through his research in the field of happiness Seligman created the PERMA model, which lists the following 5 elements essential for boosted well-being levels:
Positive emotions: have positive perspectives and the ability to be optimistic in the present and when looking at the past and future.
Engagement: absorb us completely and engage fully. This allows us to learn, grow and nurture our happiness.
Relationships: humans thrive on social connections and strong relationships. Find connections and avoid isolation.
Meaning: having purpose and meaning on earth is important to living a life of happiness and fulfilment.
Achievement: Having accomplishments in life is important to push ourselves to thrive and flourish.
Seligman theorised that there are many ways to reach happiness, and engaging in things that tick all aspects of the PERMA model can be a way to boost our well-being and happiness. The five elements of PERMA can help us reach a life of fulfilment, happiness, and meaning… so does exercise match each of these and successfully help us in finding happiness?
With a little help from the MoveGB app, I decided to test a selection of activities for the PERMA factor and see how getting active can impact my well-being.
The Happiness Experiment: The activities
My terror was in abundance on my way to the class, but thankfully, all my fears of big, scary boxers drifted away as I was greeted with a warm welcome. The happiness boosting effects of endorphins – those little hormones that give us a euphoric high – are well known to be linked with exercise and, without a doubt, the high impact, non-stop energy of this class meant that it was virtually impossible to leave without a mega buzz.
Don’t be fooled – although trying to keep a punch bag at an angle by boxing it non-stop for 1 minute might look like a mindless task, it renders you fully engaged in the moment. Almost like moving meditation. You’re focusing on the fact that if you take your eye off the ball (or bag, rather) for one second you’ll lose your stride. So yes, in a class like this you feel fully engaged, with no chance to lose concentration and get bored.
There are people around you all the time and everyone’s primarily there for one reason – to get their sweat on and leave feeling knackered with a capital “K”. MoveGB is an awesome way to access all sorts of different activity classes and feel connected to others, whether you’re feeling like chatty Cathy or just want to avoid small talk and focus.
The coach also made sure he said hello and even helped me to tie those pesky hand wraps which helped me to feel like that valued member of the group, rather than a doughnut who clearly didn’t have much boxing prowess.
Although boxing’s not something I’ve done much of in the past, I’m all about doing things that help you to feel empowered, bold and in control – plus what a great way to take out your frustration from any work or life stresses!
It’s doing classes like this that make you realise it doesn’t always have to be the activity that gives meaning, but the environment and type of feelings it provokes that enable you to leave feeling like the super hero version of you.
Ok, so I won’t be giving Anthony Joshua a run for his money any time soon, but the fact that my tiny little twig-like arms lasted the class and I left with a confident swagger is worth so much to me.
Yoga classes are, as standard, designed to leave you feeling blissfully chilled and beaming with a zen-like glow. Yin yoga, however, was something else. Since the room was in candlelight and you’re encouraged to leave your eyes closed for most of the session to avoid distraction from other classmates.
This allows you to calm your thoughts and focus on your breath, as you give your muscles a good old stretch after a long week sitting behind a computer desk. Switch off, take some ‘me’ time and focus.
When it comes to fitness the words “slow and steady” were never part of my vocabulary. For years I believed that the only way of keeping a class-full of movers engaged was to cram every second with muscle quivering, heart pounding action.
I’m pleased to say this class has gone a long way to proving me wrong and although Yin yoga is more about deep stretching and focused breathwork, the grounded feeling gained from being in the moment with constant support and thought provoking insights from the instructor meant you couldn’t but stay engaged throughout. And when you get to the relaxation at the end, you’re doing that wrong if you don’t drift off into slumber land.
When I go to a yoga class, I go wanting to switch off, zone out and preferably avoid any interaction more in-depth than 3 seconds of eye contact. However, the setup and vibe of this particular studio is uncanny in its ability to make you feel at home and accepted with the ever smiling staff.
This feeling of effortless belonging and community is what makes a fitness class more than just something to help you stay in shape... and what keeps me coming back for more.
Relevance of what time of day or stage in the week I attend fitness classes never featured in my mind before... Although this class would have been delightful on a Monday morning, there’s something about actively choosing to unwind, stretch and exhale at the end of the working week that just makes sense. So in terms of providing meaning this class hits the mark on many levels.
If you’re looking to feel like you’ve achieved some wild and incredible feat, then this class probably isn’t for you. However, if proving to yourself that you can do something more constructive with your Friday evening than heading straight to the pub – which, let’s face it, is a fine way to start the weekend – then give it a try. Spending an evening quieting the mind instead of overstimulating it in celebration of the weekend really leaves you with a sense of achievement.
I’m not what you’d call a morning person, so when I found myself sitting in a dazed heap at the kitchen counter before 7am contemplating a bootcamp, I wasn’t exactly brimming with positivity.
What many years of painful experience has taught me, however, is that exercise is rarely something I feel delighted at the prospect of beforehand and sometimes even during, but the zing you get after more than makes up for it. And this class was no exception, giving it a big positive thumbs up worth its weight in burpees.
Although it might sometimes feel like instructors just turn up and shout commands, a good fitness instructor who encourages and supports you to immerse yourself in the class fully can be hard to come by.
In carrying out a whole group warm-up and cooldown and maintaining an obvious, easy to follow structure throughout, this 45 minute class kept you alert and engaged throughout.
The structure of the class meant that each circuits station was done in pairs. What I love about this is that you don’t have to excruciatingly wait to be picked by a partner, but merely saunter over to an exercise station and buddy up with someone you’ve never met before! And yes, there was plenty of bonding over the fact that they hate squat jumps too!
Aristotle said that meaning is gained from doing whatever it is that puts us in a contented state of feeling healthy, happy and prosperous. Now if I were to suggest that attending one MoveGB fitness class is the answer to the age old philosophical conundrum of the meaning of life, I might be sounding a little OTT... However, getting up on your feet, getting active and taking definite steps to control of your own health and happiness, is surely a giant leap in the right direction - and if spending your early morning sweating in the centre of Bristol isn’t a good place to take that leap then I don’t know where is.
I got up at 6.45, IN THE MORNING, to take part in 45 minutes of high intensity, fast paced fitness people! If that’s not an achievement in itself then I’m all out of ideas.
So in conclusion...
To quote Aristotle once more, “One MoveGB class does not a happy life make”. Ok, so I might have paraphrased slightly, but the essence is the same.
What I’ve realised from my little experiment is that, although our happiness levels can’t be dramatically altered by attending just one fitness class, accessing a variety of activities regularly and creating opportunities ourselves to move really does match many of the elements of the PERMA model.
Forging connections with both new friends and yourself, engaging fully at the task at hand and feeling an immense sense of achievement when leaving the workout can all majorly impact positivity and optimism. It may not provide new found meaning to your life, but it can help in giving you a purpose of short-term goals to focus on! Working out definitely takes the steps in the right direction for improving mental health and well-being.
Get moving and try out a heap of activities until you find the ones that really make your endorphins zing. Focus on each activity and give it your all - reap the benefits both physically and mentally!
Cat Taylor is a Personal Trainer and Happiness Coach and loves to move, laugh, eat cake and help other people find their sparkle. Cat works in the Bristol area providing fitness classes, well being workshops and 1:1 happiness coaching sessions. Specialising in empowering women to break out of their comfort zones, Cat encourages others to live happily, healthily and with more meaning! Want to know more? Then take a peek at www.nudgeyourself.co.uk and say ‘Hi’.