Most fitness articles just seem to revolve around looking good in the mirror and lifting more. But don't ignore the mental health benefits – it might just be the key to keeping up your new workout routine.
It’s no secret that, when it comes to exercise, brain and brawn are intrinsically linked. Your body is what gets you to the weights room or the track, but it’s your mindset that keeps you coming back week in, week out; month after month.
Likewise, brute strength will help you pile up the reps and scorch through the calories, but if more reps and more calories are all you’re training for, it can start to feel a bit, well, empty. Couldn’t all those hours in the gym, those early starts and painful miles, be about something deeper than just the perfect mirror selfie or how many bicep curls you can do?
This is the backbone of something called ‘holistic fitness’, a training methodology that attempts to train the entire person, inside and out, rather than just worrying about how good you look naked. This way, you focus as much of your efforts on the bits you can’t see: mind, body and soul.
Despite coming across as yet another buzz-y bit of fitness jargon, holistic fitness isn’t a trending fitness class or TikTok hashtag, fated to dominate your life for a few months then disappear just as you’ve invested in a bunch of new kit. This one’s about helping you turn your fitness journey into a way of life.
By placing equal focus on training your mind, body and soul, holistic fitness offers a more well-rounded approach to exercise when compared to more traditional objectives such as muscle-building or weight-loss.
By targeting physical, mental, intellectual and emotional health, it’s theorised that it can create a sustainable, health-oriented lifestyle in which living well becomes much less of box-ticking exercise and more of an effortless, unconscious choice. You could nix your stress levels, improve your sleep and improve your perception of your own body shape. Simply put, it’s about emotional exercise, not just physical. Self-care with squats. Positive reinforcement with pilates.
Pseudo-science, this is not. A 2019 study published in BMC Public Health sought to examine the effect of holistic fitness on the ‘physical literacy’ – ”a person’s capacity and commitment to a physically active lifestyle” — of 31 “physically inactive” study participants, compared against a similarly-sized group of non-exercisers.
The first group underwent 15 weekly holistic fitness training “interventions” — broadly, a fitness “intervention” is a form of exercise that disrupts the study participants’ sedentary day, often structured and undertaken with the aim of improving fitness, such as reducing sitting time or taking walking breaks — with the researchers monitoring the effect of physical activity behaviour, attitude towards a physically active lifestyle, exercise motivation, knowledge and self-confidence across the trial period. Once the 15-week period had wrapped, it was found that the group that had exercised had higher physical literacy, alongside a lower baseline BMI.
Another study from Dartmouth College observed how study participants’ commute affected their productivity at work. It was found that those who spent their commute doom-scrolling on their smartphones performed poorly during the working day, whereas those who found ways to be physically active — an environmentally-friendly cycle to work, anyone? — performed noticeably better.
Just by incorporating physical activity into their commute, these high-performers were less likely to work late just by walking part of their journey instead of obsessing over a cortisol-inducing email thread.
As with anything in fitness, it’s all about taking small steps. If you’re struggling with sleep, try curbing the second or third cup of coffee that could be keeping you up at night and thereby sabotaging your workouts.
If you can’t stay productive, try blocking out your time into 25 minutes of strict work and five minutes of emailing to help steady the boat during your working day.
Small actions like this could help build your mental fitness and thereby have a direct carry-over into not only your workouts, but your lifestyle as a whole. Here’s a few more:
Checking your emails outside of working hours? A 2018 study found that this could negatively affect your (and your partner’s) wellbeing. Use app-blockers and out-of-office notifications to curb the habit and you’ll reap the rewards of reduced stress levels.
Instead of wanting to lean up for a looming sun-soaked holiday, or busting to hit a new one-rep-max, set goals that are specific, measurable and attainable. Rather than just pleading to get fit, get specific with your targets. Taking three minutes off your 5K PB, for example, or committing to an extra workout every week. Even better, stick them into a timeframe, suggests The Academy of Management Review.
According to research from Florida State University, you can train (and flex) your willpower like it’s a muscle. To ‘warm-up’ your intentions, start small — so, instead of going all-in on a ‘clean-eating’ mindset and trying to live exclusively off homegrown veggies, start by swapping out your weekly take-away for a well-balanced, easy-to-make meal. May we suggest Huel Hot and Savoury?
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