Change up your workouts for a mental health and well-being boost

Victor Ko Kai-yiu varies his exercise ad workouts, and feels better for it. That bears out the findings of a recent study of the mental health benefits of a varied exercise routine.
PHOTO: Instagram/victor.ko103

Like most gym-goers in Hong Kong, Victor Ko had to give up his gym-based weight-training routine when the coronavirus pandemic hit last year. Luckily, the widespread gym closures did not curtail the 35-year-old aviation engineer’s physical activity.

“I run a callisthenics group and a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) group and we meet a few times a week,” he shares. “I also enjoy outdoor activities like jogging, hiking, sprinting up hills with friends and swimming in the ocean.

“When my gym closed and we were told that group activities would be restricted, I switched my training programme up a little. Since I couldn’t lift weights at the gym, I did workouts using my body weight instead. I also did more outdoor activities and continued my HIIT workouts alone or with one or two other people.”

Being flexible with his routine was key to helping Ko stay physically active when the city was locked down and social distancing measures were introduced. Because his workouts were varied, he rarely felt bored and enjoyed having something different to look forward to every day.

“Even before the pandemic, I loved adding new elements to my training programme every now and then because it made my workouts more enjoyable and challenging,” he explains. “But not all my physical activity is structured.

“When I go out, I try to take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator, and when I’m at home I like to stretch throughout the day. I just like to keep moving whenever and wherever I can.”

Victor Ko keeps his exercise routines interesting by varying his activities.
PHOTO: Instagram/victor.ko103

Staying active benefits our physical and emotional health, but a small study done by researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland found that mixing up your physical activities could improve your emotional well-being more than a deliberate or conscious exercise routine.

The study involved 106 participants who had mental health issues. Their physical movements were tracked over the course of a week, after which they were asked questions about their overall health and mental wellness.

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The results showed that the more participants moved and the more varied their movements, the greater their sense of well-being . Variety of movement was also found to be associated with greater psychological flexibility. The study was published earlier this year in the specialist journal BMC Psychiatry .

Although the data was collected before the pandemic, the results are also relevant in light of the limitations caused by Covid-19, according to the university’s Professor Andrew Gloster, who led the study. Because many social and recreational activities have been discontinued, our physical activity patterns have become more monotonous.

Other studies have shown that the pandemic is having a negative impact on our emotional well-being; the results from Gloster’s study suggest that restricted movement patterns could play a role in this.

“Since the pandemic began, many of us haven’t been able to exercise the way we want to and some people have abandoned their routines altogether,” says Norma Ngai Tse-wai, a physiotherapist at Matilda International Hospital in Hong Kong. “But regular exercise is important because, besides keeping us physically healthy, it helps us manage stress and anxiety and minimises our risk of depression.

“Having a varied exercise routine is beneficial. When something is different, fun, challenging and exciting, there’s a greater sense of engagement and we’re more likely to stay committed to it.”

Norma Ngai Tse-wai is a physiotherapist at Matilda International Hospital.
PHOTO: Matilda International Hospital

Schalk Viljoen, head trainer at House of Fitness in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district, says that, while repetition can help you learn how to do a particular exercise safely and is a good way to see if you’re getting stronger or more efficient at that exercise, variety can definitely help you look forward to every single training session.

According to Ngai, a combination of aerobic exercise, resistance training and stretching is better for our mental health than doing any single activity alone. Exercising outdoors can also help increase our self-esteem. Therefore, she recommends a mix of outdoor and indoor training that combines aerobic, resistance and stretching exercises.

If you find it hard to stick to a workout programme because you get bored easily or lack discipline or motivation, try different activities to figure out what you like and create a routine based around them. Ngai says you may discover that you like exercising with a friend or fitness trainer, as part of a group, or even with a dog.

Ko runs an HIIT group (above) and a callisthenics group a few times a week.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

If you have to exercise at home because of the pandemic, try an online dance class or invest in virtual reality-based sports equipment . Just remember to keep the activities varied and to do something different every day so that all your muscle groups get a workout.

“The human body is capable of a lot, so see what yours can do,” Viljoen offers. “If you challenge your body physically in new ways you’ll feel stronger, since different exercises yield different results.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to fitness. Find whatever works for you and your body and the goals you’ve set out for yourself. Most importantly, enjoy the activity. You’re more likely to commit to the process if you’re enjoying yourself week after week.”

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To stay active and healthy, Viljoen suggests working incidental exercise into your day. “Making small changes, like walking to the shops instead of taking a cab and taking the stairs instead of the lift, adds to the total amount of energy you burn throughout the week.

“We’re not built to remain sedentary all day. The more you use your body the way it’s intended to be used, the better your overall health will be.”

For Ko, mixing things up has been beneficial in helping him manage his emotional health.

“Whether it’s alone in the gym, with friends at the park or out in nature, I always make sure my workouts are interesting and fun. If I enjoy it, I’m more likely to stick to it, which is important because exercising is one of the main ways I keep my stress levels down, stay happy and focused and maintain a positive mindset.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.