January is here, which means social media is full of ‘inspirational’ fitness content, with videos that revolve around waking up at 5am, chugging green smoothies, and sweating through fitness challenges that we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy.
The reality for a lot of carers? We’re entering January with absolutely zero energy. After our typical day of being pulled in all directions, the last thing we have the time or energy to fit in is lifting weights or running on a treadmill. Sometimes, all that’s getting us through the day is the thought of collapsing on the sofa with the leftover Christmas selection box. And that’s OK!
With that being said, we know that exercise is fairly vital for our health. So, how can we make sure we’re achieving the NHS-recommended 150 minutes of weekly activity when we’re tired, busy, or simply hate the idea of yet another to-do to fit in? The answer is, we’re probably a lot closer to this goal than we realise.
By changing our thinking to a mindset of ‘enoughness’, we can take the pressure off this January, starting the year with self compassion over self punishment.
What is an ‘enoughness’ mindset?
Lots of us feel guilty about doing too little exercise.
No matter how much physical work we’re actually doing, society has become so obsessed with what a fit and healthy lifestyle should look like, that it’s really easy to feel like we’ve already failed if, for example, we’re not getting to the gym every day.
This conflict between what we are doing each day vs what we feel we should be doing is common. It recently formed a fascinating discussion between Dr Alia Crum, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, and neuroscientist Dr Andrew Huberman in a popular episode of The Huberman Podcast.
In the talk, Dr Crum reveals that simply changing our mindset about exercise can dramatically alter the effects of that exercise on weight loss, blood pressure, and other health metrics. According to her, when it comes to seeing healthy changes in our lives, “it’s a sense of enoughness that really matters.”
Rather than demanding superhuman standards of ourselves, ‘enoughness’ for carers means recognising the already (hugely) physically challenging aspects of our role and all we are likely doing already.
Are we already exercising more than we think?
In our wellness-fuelled society, we’re all too guilty of thinking that exercise only counts if we’re on a fitness mat, wearing a fancy gym kit, and tracking our calorie burn and intake like a military drill.
But, as carers, we’re often doing so much more physical work than the average person. Of course, Mobi knows this all too well.
A fascinating study, dubbed ‘The Hotel Study’, looked into this theory. Dr Alia Crum and her team surveyed female hotel workers, asking them how much exercise they did per week. Overall, a third of the women said they got no exercise whatsoever, and when they were asked to score their activity level out of ten, the average response was just three.
“The women were on their feet all day, pushing carts, changing linen, climbing stairs and cleaning bathrooms,” says Crum. “It’s clear that they were getting more than the exercise guidelines at the time, which was to accumulate 30 minutes of physical activity each day.”
The researchers measured the women on various physiological metrics like weight, body fat and blood pressure, and randomised them into two study groups. Half of them were told about the unintentional physical activity they were doing every day, and the benefits of all that exercise. The other half did not receive this information and carried on as they were.
The researchers came back four weeks later and tested the women again. What the they found was that although the group of women who knew about their activity levels hadn’t changed anything in their behaviour, they lost more weight than the other group, and decreased their systolic blood too (this impacts how much pressure our blood is exerting against our artery walls).
And most importantly, they had started feeling better about themselves, their bodies, and their work. How we think about, or perceive the activities we already do, can seemingly increase their positive benefits on our wellbeing.
What does this mean for carers?
The research suggests that the mindset of inadequacy that many of us feel about our exercise routines could actually be affecting not just our mood and mental health, but the benefits we get from the movement itself.
Movement doesn’t just happen in the gym. It all counts towards our health goals. On any given day, we may have pushed a wheelchair up a hill, lifted someone into the shower or taken the person we care for on a lunchtime walk. Not to mention run up and down the stairs ten times, done four loads of washing, or been on our feet for three hours solidly.
“I don't have to fit exercise in. As a carer, it is already part of my day. Step aerobics, weightlifting, stretching, running. I’m doing it all”
Just look towards this 2019 study for proof, which found that the average nurse burns an incredible 1500 calories in each 12-hour shift, doing many of the same tasks unpaid carers may face on a daily basis.
So, the idea that we need to do more is not only not motivational, but it might not even be true. By thinking that we’re lazy for skipping the gym, we’re undermining all the incredible physical exercise we do during the day. And possibly reducing the positive impact all that movement could be having on our mind and bodies.
We explore the power of self talk more in, When did you last say something nice to yourself?
Why is exercise important?
Regular exercise is one of the most effective ways we can stay healthy with age.
Physically, it strengthens muscles and bones, improves cardiovascular health, and helps to keep our weight within a healthy range. Living an active lifestyle can also improve our ability to do everyday caring tasks, like helping someone to wash in the shower, pushing a wheelchair, or lifting them out of bed.
Mentally, there are lots of benefits too. A quick workout can reduce stress, boost our mood by releasing endorphins, and improve our cognitive function and resilience, helping us to remain calm and focused in high-stress situations.
“I love a gym day. I feel so good afterwards. Revitalised and up for anything for the new few days.”
So, how can we build an 'enough' mindset around fitness?
The reason that we often feel that we aren’t doing ‘enough’ is that many of us see exercise as a punishment, or yet another chore that we need to make time for.
Finding balance is important, which is why we should focus on intuitive movement - incorporating tiny pockets of fitness when we need it, alongside mentally congratulating ourselves for all the physical activity we do in our caring role.
We don’t ‘need’ to roll out the fitness mat if we’re spent from spending all day on our feet, lifting, and carrying. Wearing a fitness tracker, such as a Fitbit, can be helpful in these instances (they cost as little as £20), as it can help us to track things like our step count, active time and calorie burn if we need to see the evidence of all we’re doing.
Beyond the science, it’s good to look at exercise as a chance to take a break, or to build much-needed energy, rather than feeling like it’s ‘another thing’ to add to our to-do list.
“For me fitness is very important and I find it definitely makes a huge difference to relieve the pressure of caring.”
There is no right or wrong way to keep fit, but if it helps us feel good, it’s worth finding what works for us.
Simple ways to build more exercise into our routine
On those days where we do intuitively feel we need a mini fitness boost, we’ve gathered some easy tips for building gentle movement into our day.
1. Go for a daily walk
Not only does walking connect us with nature, but it also contributes to our physical wellbeing. Walking has many proven health benefits, including improving cardiovascular health and boosting our mood. According to a 2019 study, spending just 20 minutes connecting with nature can help to dramatically lower stress hormone levels.
Pairing this activity with a relaxing or uplifting podcast, or even practising walking meditation, is a lovely way to create a peaceful moment for ourselves, especially during overwhelming times.
2. Try temptation bundling
Lots of people hate exercise with a passion. If we love nothing more than a coffee break, building the habit of rewarding ourselves with a hot cuppa after our workout can help with motivation.
Katy Milkman, a brilliant researcher in the US, backs this idea up with a scientific theory called ‘Temptation Bundling’. Her idea is that if we link something that we want to do, with something that we think we should do, we’re more likely to tick-off the task we dislike.
3. Set up cues
Cues are a really important part of building habits. Can we set reminders to help us to structure our world around the habits we want to build?
This could be booking classes in advance, setting reminders on our phones, or organising our caring calendar and respite so we have the time and energy to workout if we want to.
Getting dressed into active gear in the morning may also help with the mindset of seeing what we do already as exercise, even if we are just doing the housework, or encourage us to sneak in a few extra ‘fitness snacks’ - see below, if we are already in our leggings and trainers over lounge pants and slippers.
4. Fitness snack throughout the day
Fitness snacking is a big trend in the world of fitness right now. The concept involves doing short bouts of exercise throughout the day, rather than one mammoth workout.
Some examples of the trend in action could be doing a round of squats when the kettle is boiling, lifting weights while watching TV, or dancing while we’re cooking dinner. Watch this video by Energize With Lizzie for five, easy to incorporate, suggestions.
There are lots of ways we can do little bits of movement throughout the day, without needing a gym pass.
5. Find recorded classes online
Pre-recorded classes are a carer’s best friend. Why? Because we can pause and come back to the videos whenever we have time, which is particularly useful if we can’t get out to a studio, or are likely to be interrupted mid-workout.
6. Put the PT in our pocket
Thanks to technology, we don’t necessarily need to splash out on a costly personal trainer. There are lots of intuitive coaching apps that help us to build confidence in everything from running and strength, to pilates and yoga.
7. Find something we love doing (that doesn’t feel like ‘work’)
Very few people love the idea of gruelling workouts, but there can be so much joy in discovering new activities, making friends, and building skills through fitness. Dancing, yoga, Pilates, callisthenics, hiking, bouldering, surfing, swimming - the list goes on. They all contribute toward our daily movement goal. The key is to find something we actually want to do.
“I really enjoy cycling and I’ve got a smart trainer in the garage so I don’t need to battle the weather or leave home. It works great.”
Local groups and classes can be a great way to enjoy an hour of respite. Social media platform Meetup is a good resource for finding groups in our local area.
For those of us with less mobility we can also try things like chair yoga, or Tai Chi. The Royal Voluntary Service have a range of pre-recorded seated exercise classes. This is all about being adaptable and finding what works, and feels good, for us.
8. Try pocket-sized resolutions
Pocket-sized resolutions are more manageable resolutions that we can do, they're micro-habits that can easily fit into the busy caring days. Need some inspiration? Check out some suggestions from carers in our community.
At Mobilise, we're suggesting a different approach to January this year. Instead of adding more pressure with big fitness goals during an already tough time, let's appreciate the hard work we're already putting in, each and every day.
Do you have any other tips on ways to stop that January exercise guilt from creeping in? If so, pop over to our Mobilise Hub and share them with other carers in the community.