Mind and body balance in debate: how COVID-19 changed our perspectives of mental health

The pandemic of COVID-19 has created a new awareness in many people regarding the importance of slowing down and maintaining a healthy balance between our bodies and our minds. The lockdown measures in the Netherlands and around the globe have impacted the daily routine of all of us, and maintaining a healthy state of mind is a hot topic at the moment, more than ever before.

A new challenge emerged for all of us during the lockdown: to stay sane. Many of us relied on exercise to find the right balance between staying active and keeping our sanity, the perfect combination to connect body and mind. The benefits of following a regular routine of physical activity are widely known to be effective for the body, but there are a lot of consequences for the brain as well. The best part is that all of these benefits have been proven by science.

According to the national statistics office CBS, almost half of the Dutch population aged 4 years and over comply with the recommendations for physical activity set by the Health Council of the Netherlands. Young people between the ages of 12 to 18 and people aged 65 and over are less likely to meet these guidelines. Nevertheless, the number of elderly (over-65s) who get sufficient exercise is twice as large as two decades ago.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that embracing physical activity on a regular basis can have great positive effects on the body. Staying active has been proven to reduce high blood pressure, help maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and various cancers. The list goes on. It also improves bone and muscle strength and increases balance, flexibility and fitness. For older people, activities that improve balance help to prevent falls and the resulting injuries, and working out may keep us cognitively sharp into old age, reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, there is everything to gain.

Exercise makes you happier
It’s not just the body that benefits from physical activity, our mind does too. When you exercise, you release neurochemicals called endorphins. These are produced in the hypothalamus, a gland in the brain, and in the pituitary gland, explains J. Kip Matthews, a PhD in sports and exercise psychologist, to CNN. These neurochemicals are considered natural painkillers, as the perception of pain is reduced when endorphins interact with the receptors in our brains. The most interesting part is that endorphins trigger a positive feeling in our bodies, which can bring an energizing outlook on life, turning you into a more confident thinker. In summary, the sole act of exercising regularly promotes neural growth, reduces brain inflammation and creates new activity patterns in our heads that promote feelings of calm and well-being.

Therefore, physical activity is the perfect balance between keeping our mind and bodies connected. Keeping a routine also reduces the risk of depression and cognitive decline and it delays dementia. A study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health revealed that running 15 minutes a day, or walking for an hour, reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. In addition, maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent you from relapsing into a depressive state. Exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression.

Neuropsychologist Erik Scherder explains in an interview for AD newspapers that “if you exercise moderately to intensively, the number of cells and NK cells, or natural killers, in your body increases. Those are the cells that attack viruses. You don’t have to go beyond your limits, but get out of that chair. Go up and down the stairs a few more times, take a walk.” The word is to stay active, somehow.

Get up and running… or walking
So, next time you’re feeling down, anxious or stressed, try to get up and start moving! I’m an athlete and I have played professional volleyball throughout my life. Even being used to sports, it’s still challenging to exercise some days. There are lazy days, like everybody else has. So be kind to yourself, it’s hard to maintain a constant routine with our busy lives. It’s ok; no one needs to become the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, or to win gold medals. The secret is to do something, anything, and to stick to a pleasant routine for you. Set up times to prioritize your own health. Here are some exercise ideas to help you lift your mood:

  • Dancing: just put some music, any kind, and “feel” the vibes.
  • Walking around the block, watching the scenery, distracting your mind while contemplating nature.
  • Bicycling; it’s really easy here in the Netherlands to go anywhere. Take a ride!
  • Online workout classes or apps.
  • Sign up to the gym near you, or grab a mat and go to the nearest park.
  • Running: put some music on and start your day with some sweat.
  • Yoga: there are a lot of online videos and studios in most towns. There is a whole philosophy behind yoga, and it’s a great mind and body practice, combining physical postures, breathing exercises and relaxation.
  • Tai Chi: this “moving meditation” involves shifting the body slowly, gently and precisely, while breathing deeply. Great to help calm down your mental state.
  • Pilates, kickboxing, volleyball or jumping jacks. Get a friend to join you so you can challenge each other.

The main idea behind all of this: choose an activity you want to do, not one you have to do. What do you enjoy? Whether it’s gardening, playing tennis, kicking around a soccer ball with your friend at the park, or exercising by yourself, the main goal is to keep moving.

What if you had a pill to score all the benefits of exercising?
There is some news if you are not ready to get out of the couch just yet. If you don’t like to exercise at all, pay close attention. Scientists from the University of California in San Francisco are optimistic that the benefits of exercising may be available in a pill one day. Yes, you read that right: a pill that offers the same benefits as exercising. A liver protein may be responsible for the well-known benefits of exercise on the brain. This protein was found during a study on ageing mice. The research was published in Science, July 2020.

The new study showed that after mice complete their exercise, their livers secrete a protein called Gpld1 into their blood. The elderly mice who receive Gpld1 via a transfusion gathered the same memory benefits as the active ones, who were exercising constantly. This suggests the enzyme could be given artificially. An interesting fact is that scientists also found the same substance in higher levels in the blood of elderly humans who exercise regularly.

So, artificially increasing the amount of Gpld1 could give the brain the same benefits as regular exercise. “If there was a drug that produced the same brain benefits as exercise, everyone would be taking it. Now our study suggests that at least some of these benefits might be one day available in the form of a pill,” said the study’s senior author Saul Villeda.

Scientists are working to better understand how Gpld1 interacts with other systems, to produce its brain-boosting effects. This may enable them to identify targets for drugs that could one day provide many of the protective benefits of exercise. But until this day comes, the best way is to stay active in order to keep a healthy balance between our bodies and our minds.

Written by Raphael Perachi Vieira