Ask different people in the same town or city around the globe, and you’ll receive a wide range of opinions on why exercise is important. For some, it’s a chore for health, while others strive towards a fitness goal. For an increasing number however, exercise is a route to improved well-being. Some find solace in flowing through sun salutations, while others find release in burpees and hill sprints, pushing their limits while endorphins improve their mood as a result.
This then begs the question: is one type of workout better for well-being than another? And why do the effects differ for each person? At face value, it could be that our enjoyment of exercise and its feel-good effect is what we’re after, and whether that form of training helps us get there.
Calorie-torching, for example, doesn’t get much more effective than aerobic or cardiovascular activity, such as running, swimming and high-intensity interval training. Its multitude of benefits make it equally as essential for endurance athletes focused on building stamina and cardiovascular capability, as it is for those looking to lose weight or improve health. Of course, weight loss comes with its own feelings of enhanced well-being with an increase in confidence and self-worth, but that’s not the only motive for pushing yourself to the max.
London-based personal trainer Helen Barlow, known for her unwavering enthusiasm, positivity and boundless energy, credits high-impact exercise as giving her a ‘post-workout high’. And anyone who has experienced the feel-good endorphins that flood the body when we raise the heart rate and get the blood pumping, will agree.
This notion certainly isn’t new, but clinical research has only in recent years begun to demonstrate that this is truly the case. For example, we now know that the brighter frame of mind after an aerobic workout is the result of an exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to your brain, among other physiological reactions. In terms of how long it takes to feel this emotional boost, studies show that the mood-enhancing effects begin to kick in just five minutes after moderate intensity exercise such as going for a light run. For many, these endorphins are not just a route to a sunnier outlook in the short term, but also to reduced stress and better sleep.
As for which workouts to choose, personal trainer Barlow credits cardio-heavy workouts such as spinning and HIIT as her everyday go-to, and a boxing session after a particularly tough day. “The concentration necessary to master the combinations and technique help to take my mind off anything else,” she explains.
Interestingly, the rise of online workouts means most types of exercise can be done at home or alone in a gym, yet many opt to attend group workouts. “I love the atmosphere in classes,” says Barlow. “For me, it makes cardio so much more enjoyable.”
And it’s proven too. Working out together is now well-established as a social activity and considered a form of social bonding. Fitness classes have never been more popular, or trendy, as they are now. Recent years have seen metropolitan cities experience an influx of group classes ranging from barre to weight-lifting, filtering out to the suburbs too. Why? The social element increases our enjoyment of a workout, and the sheer breadth of options means there’s more to keep us interested. Variety is key, and nowhere is that truer than in the workout regimes on offer.
Bringing in balance
For Barlow, mixing up exercise type is important. To maximise results and the sense of gratification, she encourages everyone to “be aware of their weekly routine, and ensure they don’t have too much of one or too little of another.” She varies her own with three cardio sessions and a slower-paced class each week which leaves her feeling “strong and centred”.
“Yin yoga is the ultimate ‘self-care’ and something that I need to include in my weekly routine,” Barlow explains. “The poses are held for a longer period of time compared to other types of yoga, up to five minutes. By relaxing the muscles and working the connective tissue in longer passive holds, yin offers a deep sense of flexibility in the body that just feels incredible. It also totally stills the mind.”
Whether you practise once a week or are a regular practitioner, yoga is intertwined with well-being; improving flexibility while quietening our ever-buzzing minds. For some though, it goes deeper.
At Shreyas yoga retreat in India, their head of yoga Balasundar M.S. considers yoga not so much a form of exercise, but a way of life. He calls it “the science of the spirit” and a “holistic way of living”, adding that, “Its practice can bring total peace and harmony.”
Of hatha yoga in particular, Balasundar says the body is “an instrument to master the mind and enable us to attain higher states of consciousness”. The combination of physical postures, breathing exercises and meditation, he says, aims to purify and balance the body.
Anyone who has participated in the practice will have experienced the sensation of pure calm as they lay in savasana, and it is this holistic, harmonising approach that many around the globe turn to yoga in their pursuit of well-being. Its effects on reducing anxiety and tension help people find balance, and most yoga practitioners would agree with Balasundar that the benefits lie in its holistic approach to targeting the spiritual, psychological and intellectual.
The physical benefits are not to be glossed over either. As a workout, yoga helps improve strength, muscle tone and flexibility, and can help you hold a headstand. Bikram yoga, for example, has been shown to decrease body fat, improve deadlift strength and increase strength in the lower back and hamstrings. The study may not have revealed its role in improving overall fitness, but that’s where being active in different ways comes into play, and not always in the form of a dedicated workout.
Listen to your body
“I try to walk as much as possible between clients and classes,” says Barlow. “This helps keep my activity levels high without the extra stress on my body. I encourage my clients to add daily walks into their routine. As much as I love aerobic workouts, my body doesn’t respond well to too much stress. Ultimately, all movement and exercise is beneficial.”
There’s logic behind Barlow’s suggestions. It might not typically be classified a ‘workout’, but walking has been scientifically shown to improve feelings of health and happiness. Research links an active commute to a greater sense of wellness, particularly compared to those who opt for car or public transport, and was even found to enhance your frame of mind once a change of routine was established. Your choice of location can also have an impact. For those living in urban areas, getting outside and exercising in the greenery of parks has been shown to make a significant difference, with experts discussing its sustained effect on well-being.
So what is the verdict? Any form of exercise, high- or low-impact, is likely to leave you feeling brighter and more positive. Based on the evidence a combination of cardio, yoga, group workouts and exercising outdoors would appear to be the ultimate combination, but the most important thing to keep in mind? As Barlow says: “Exercise has to be something you enjoy and look forward to. Listen to your body. Give your body yoga when it needs yoga, and give it a pumping exercise class when it craves it! Be kind to your body and it will love you in return.”
This article was first published on AsiaSpa
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