**After much thought, I have decided to share some posts centering around topics other than COVID-19. Please know this is not out of a lack of respect for the severity of the current situation but, in fact, because of it. I am sorely in need of ingesting interesting, stimulating information amidst the news—and guessing you be might be, too. Creating and recalibrating the balance in our lives is a large part of what I teach. We are in need of balancing out the fear and uncertainty with hope, action, dreaming big, and fun. I hope I deliver. We’ve got this.**
It’s 5:15 am on a frigid, dark winter morning. Snuggled and toasty-warm in my bed, I tentatively reach out from under the five layers of covers to shut off the increasingly loud beep of my ancient alarm clock. Today, pre-dawn is the only available time in the schedule for exercise. The cold tip of my nose forewarns of the chilly temperature in the house, tempting me to burrow more deeply into the coziness, switch off the alarm, and drift happily back into dreamland.
No, wait! I also know how amazing it will feel once I’m up, dressed, and stretched out on my yoga mat, body and breath synching gratefully. I will be more clear-headed, awake, creative, and happier. I will walk taller, shoulders pulled back, with a natural boost of confidence. I will be a kinder mom, wife, and therapist. Precisely because of such countless benefits accrued over the years, I find the wherewithal to throw off the soft comforters, venture into the frosty bathroom, and, finally, onto my well-worn yoga mat.
I make no apologies for the fact that I am downright selfish when it comes to making time to exercise. Each Sunday, after sketching out the week’s work schedules, kids activities, and other commitments, exercise is next to be penciled in. Actually, I ink it in, and I guard it carefully. It’s my self-protection from burnout, from both mental and physical lethargy, and from the busyness that can easily creep in and take over if I allow it. Having said that, I have also learned to be flexible in how and when I carve out the time.
Some days, if there is enough morning light to run outdoors, I lace up my shoes, throw back a few swigs of coffee, munch two bites of banana, and head out for a run before I barely even register what is happening. Once home, I stretch, shower, grab the rest of the coffee and, at times, question if I actually ran that three-mile loop in my half-awake stupor.
I do occasionally run in the morning darkness, but only when I need to be at the top of my game. If you catch me out running on the pre-dawn country roads with my canine companion, the glow of the awkward headlamp bouncing with every step, chances are that I have a speaking engagement later that morning. Forty-five minutes of flow yoga works, too, but for me, there is nothing like the fresh air and heart-pumping of feet on the pavement. As I focus on the road, breath, and body, inspired ideas arise organically and pick up speed, from a mere trickle to a creativity fountain. After, I feel alive, grateful, and pumped up with endorphins. And that, my friend, is the afterburn of which I speak. Not only am I fully awake, but also more mentally alert and imaginative.
What I experience is now supported by research that shows exercise appears to enhance creativity, independent of mood. According to the APA, exercise also reduces symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress by encouraging your bodily systems—such as the one that controls heart rate and respiration and the one responsible for movement—to communicate in making sure you are coping competently with emotional and physical challenges. “This workout of the body’s communication system may be the true value of exercise; the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies in responding to stress.” According to Gretchen Reynolds in The New York Times Well blog, vigorous exercise has also been shown to increase the protein brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which appears to play a particular role in improving memory, recall, and skilled task.
Regardless of how many speeches and workshops I offer, I still start out nervous. It’s no wonder I have intuitively used exercise to calm my nerves, up my creativity, and sharpen my performance. If the research isn’t convincing enough, I urge you to test out the Afterburn Mindful Break for yourself.
The Afterburn Mindful Break:
This break is about tuning into your body, posture, mood, and level of confidence after exercise. Ideally, you will engage in aerobic, heart-pumping activity. However, if you are a non-exerciser, start small and build up over time. Five minutes of brisk walking can definitely do the trick.
Choose a form of movement and get your heart pumping for a minimum of five minutes.
What do you notice post-movement? Are you more patient and tolerant? More quick-witted and mentally sharp? Funnier? More playful? Is your energy increased and sustained throughout the day? Are you happier and more content? Do you naturally stand taller? If positive outcomes are not immediately noticeable, don’t fret. I guarantee they will show up over time, sometimes subtly. Keep going.
Jot down your observations in a notebook, as this can be useful to compare progress and motivate ourselves for more.
Build upon the length and intensity of exercise and continue to enjoy the perks of moving your body with appreciation and delight.
Excerpted from Breathe, Empower, Achieve: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Women Who Do It All (The Experiment Publishing, 2019).