We are very pleased to provide this excellent article on exercise and mental performance written by Gavin McHale. Gavin is a noted strength and conditioning specialist and has worked with many physician clients to help them stay sustainable amidst the time pressures and demands inherent to their work. As he suggests, making some time to engage in physical activity actually produces a net gain in overall time as we release from mental stressors and create a more efficient internal climate. This in turn improves focus, mood, energy, and sleep making for a happier, healthier and more productive YOU. Gavin offers some fantastic tools and programming ideas that can be easily implemented into your daily life. For more information contact Gavin directly and check out his YouTube channel for additional exercises and tips.
Gavin McHale CSEP-CEP
Movement for Mental Health
As one of my clients who is a doctor once said, “I think Med School is actually a test to see how little you can sleep and still have brain function.”
In my experience working with doctors, the actual job is pretty damn similar to that sentiment. And that sucks.
You would think that the best thing to do in order to remedy this issue would be to remove some activities from your daily life, focusing more on work and making sure you get ample sleep and social time. But I somewhat disagree.
While I absolutely advocate for a balanced lifestyle, focusing on getting enough sleep and having down time to relax with friends and family, we all know that doctors lives are anything but balanced.
Huge amounts of work in small periods of time (or large periods of time). No sleep some nights paired with regular sleep other nights. 24 hours of work followed by 24 hours of no work. You get the point, you live it, day in and day out.
So why don’t we embrace that? Let’s add more.
Hear me out.
You guys are doctors for a reason, right? You’re go getters. Top of the class. Smart as all hell (or at least I hope you are).
Full tilt, full throttle, all the time. Sound about right?
So what we’re going to do is add some new skills to your repertoire. We’re going to work your ass off so that you can’t help but let all those work thoughts just melt away.
We’re going to strength train.
You know the stats. You know the research. I’m not too big on that stuff. I’m big on things that work - anecdotal evidence. While I will use research to back up my point, I’m not going to lean on it as a crutch.
So let’s go through some mental health factors and how strength training can have a positive affect on them.
Emotion & Mood
I have seen it time and time again, and not just with doctors, but with everyone. You know how sometimes people walk into a room with a black cloud around them? It’s clear, even if they’re trying to hide it, that something’s up. Who knows what it is, but it’s there. Not only does it affect work, it affects their whole life.
Working at a gym that sees around 100-150 people walk through the door every day, I see it all too often (unfortunately).
Sometimes we discuss it, sometimes we don’t. But every single time, about 30 to 40 minutes into a sweaty, gritty session the weight seems to lift (pun totally intended). A smile peeks out and, inevitably, the client leaves the gym feeling better than they did when the walked in.
Several large-scale epidemiological surveys and meta-analytic evidence shows that exercise not only leads to improvements in mood, well-being and vigour but an equivalent decrease in tension, fatigue and even anger (to a lesser degree).
Self-Esteem & Sense of Mastery
One of the most difficult things to change is someone’s sense of physical self-worth. Our whole lives, we are bombarded with messages and comparisons that shape our self-worth. Starting from our first footrace or physical competition. It’s always there and it heavily affects our mental well-being, our relationship with food, others and ourselves.
What I have found with strength training is that people learn to forget about all those other things they may not feel good about and focus on their successes. In the past month alone, I’ve seen a client deadlift her bodyweight for the first time, another perform her first bodyweight chin-up and a third perform a squat without pain for the first time since he can remember. These are all great successes and things that can be celebrated with strength training. These are things that people should be – and most certainly are - proud of.
Even forget “performance” for a second and I can find examples of success in self-mastery. I can videotape a client performing a bodyweight squat or a pushup on their first day. Sometimes this can be ugly. Then 2 or 3 months later I’ll film the same movement and show them the difference. They have learned a new skill and seen the benefits directly in how they feel both inside and outside the gym.
But what about the research?
Several types of exercise are effective in changing self-perceptions, but most of the supporting research evidence clusters around aerobic exercise and resistance training, with the latter showing greater effectiveness in the short term (Fox, in Biddle, Fox, & Boutcher, 2000).
Effects of exercise programs included improved body image, feelings of mastery brought about by the completion of a physically demanding program, and a variety of group dynamic effects (Norris et al., 1992).
Sleep & Cognitive Functioning
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it during initial assessments when I ask if there is anything else clients would like to see from a change in lifestyle.
“Well, I don’t know if this relates, but I always seem to wake up feeling tired. Can you help with that?”
Sure can, I’m going to kick your ass. That’s how I’ll help with that.
This is a little different considering those of you reading this are probably on your feet more often than the standard desk jockey, but it’s relevant nonetheless. The more you challenge your body, physically and mentally, the better you’ll sleep. I’m not just talking about length of sleep, either – since we all know that varies greatly for you as well. I’m talking quality z’s here. The type of shut-eye that allows you to wake up actually feeling refreshed and not in need of 16 coffees to push through.
Sleep is not only good for our general feeling of well-being, but also cognitive functioning. This is definitely something that I want you to be on top of.
Exercise can help with that, too. A lot of my clients have reported flying through tasks at work and at home after workouts. Most likely it’s just the endorphins and adrenaline coursing through their body, but it could also be the fact that they just hit the reset button on their day by focusing solely on the task at hand and literally teaching their brains new ways of moving through space. Not to mention that most days, most clients push the boundaries of what their brains limit them to think is actually possible.
“Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be able to do that.”
“Well ya just did it! Better believe!”
Now for the boring stuff…
Acute exercise elicits a modest improvement in sleep among good sleepers; this effect is greater for longer exercise durations. The influence of acute exercise on sleep is similar for fit and unfit people. Time of day or intensity of exercise have little moderating influence (Youngstedt & Freelove-Charton, in Faulkner & Taylor, 2005).
Most cross-sectional studies show that older adults who are fit display better cognitive performance than those who are less fit (Boutcher, 2000).
So now what?
Thanks for all this information, but what should I do with it?
Your life is busy. Not only do you work more than full time, but it’s erratic and you probably want to have some semblance of a social or family life around that, right? Well, I’m not asking much, and the good news is it doesn’t take much!
I’m proposing you start with what I call quickies. This is a short but intense burst of activity that can be as little as 5 or 10 minutes. It’ll get you moving, get you sweating, get you cursing my name and definitely have you feeling better when it’s over.
I find it best to schedule in time as if it were a meeting. Unless something else is going to make you massive amounts of money, save a life or massively improve your day, don’t allow it to take over your “ME” time.
Make it Simple, but NOT Easy
When we’re trying to get stuff done quickly, it just isn’t worth it to make it complicated. Keep it simple, but by no means allow it to be easy. No sense wasting that precious time.
Logistically, I’m talking about things like timing your sets (my favourite is 30 seconds work, 30 seconds rest), doing as many rounds as possible in a set time, or completing a set amount of reps as fast as possible.
Check all the movement boxes
I like to program 5 fundamental movement patterns which include squat, hinge, push, pull and plank variations. Hit ‘em all, every time you train for the most bang for your buck.
If you click the link above, you’ll find all of my favourite variations along with tutorials on proper form.
Rest, but Just Barely
If we’re compressing a workout into a short period of time, something’s gotta give. The most well known type of strength training involves lifting heavy weights and taking ample rest time between sets. But we don’t have time for that. Lower the weight, reduce the rest and Get. After. It.
Here’s a couple of my favourite “quickies”:
*Only a resistance band is needed here
A1) Pushups x10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1
A2) Jump Squats x1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10
As Fast As Possible
B1) Standing Band Row x100
B2) Lying Hip Bridge x100
As Few Sets As Possible
*For this one, you will need a barbell or set of dumbbells
1) Bent Over Row x5
2) Hang Clean x5
3) Front Squat x5
4) Overhead Press x5
5) Jump Squat x5
Yours in Movement Education,
Gavin McHale CSEP-CEP