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Arctic adventures and a fresh outlook for exercise and mental health by Steve Fox

In a break from tradition, I’m going to start with some song lyrics, from Shout Above the Noise by Penetration:

When everything around you falls

And all the walls are closing in

Situations in control

You must exercise your strength of will

Don’t let them win

Don’t them drag you in

Shout above the noise

I leant heavily on these sentiments whilst completing my latest “bit of stupid” being the 15km in Lapland referred to in my last blog.

Whilst my physical preparations had been thorough, I did not fully appreciate that the majority of the course would be in four feet of snow, thereby meaning the average minute mile was thirty. Looking at my Garmin watch three hours in and realising the last quarter of a mile had taken twenty-five minutes certainly meant that my strength of will was tested far beyond the physical demands of having to carry a block of ice one mile up a mountain, and three submersions in a hole in a frozen lake.

I met up with Sarah, who has impressively completed her two-day 100km tour of Arran to compare notes, basically we agreed that we are “stupid” twins.

As also is my friend Rob who partnered me on my adventure and for whose company I will be for ever grateful.

Making my way through wondrously beautiful snowbound Lapland forests, gave me the opportunity to consider the key element of my last blog being the commencement of my path to becoming a Mental Health and Exercise Coach (MHEC). I’ve no idea what the outcome may mean to me occupationally and that still makes me extremely excited. At present I feel I do not want to “pigeonhole” myself in a specific area so whilst being a MHEC may qualify me to engage with a specific community, I do not believe I want to restrict myself to one. What it will undoubtedly do is make me more skilled and comfortable to communicate with those people I want to, and feel I can, help.

What my studies have already began to do, is give me confidence in myself and reinforce my belief that I do have something to offer. They have already demonstrated that I am amongst likeminded people and in the right place.

As you will be aware from previous blogs, I have always been a believer in exercise being fun first, with health benefits effectively being a happy spin-off. It has been so refreshing to appreciate that it is not just me who feels like that, but a significant number of industry professionals that each week I am coming to respect and admire more and more.

Those peers have helped cement my core belief and have communicated it in a far more coherent, logical manner than I have been able to do so myself before. I, and as I have now found many others, believe that the principal of Body Image Internalisation is the biggest challenge and problem that the fitness industry faces, whether it realises it or not. It is the concept that the way you look generates self-worth – that appearances equate to happiness and confidence.

So many messages imply that you if look like this, you should drop weight and sizes so you can look like them. That logic can be as unhealthy as the absence of any physical activity or the perpetuation of a fat-rich diet. If you look at a lot of fitness, slimming and fashion magazines, and even gyms, exercise is promoted for aesthetic reasons, not for fun, health, and wellbeing. It is easy to make assumptions about the true motives of the promoters of exercise for appearance’s sake.

You know of my affinity with obstacles of various kinds, and that some things can just be a matter of perspective. So, it is with part of my early syllabus where exercise has been described to me as having the added benefit of the building of resilience by the creation of false hardship where challenges/obstacles are on, not in the way.

When you want to throw in the towel but do not, can mirror dealing with a bad day in life. Finding meaning in hardship builds mental fortitude and I like to believe I have taken such benefit from my heart attack and the loss of three parents to differing forms of cancer. Whilst I do not believe those events were necessarily sent to guide me, having come out the other side of all of them, I am better equipped to deal with everyday life when it gets tough and shit.

I said to someone recently, I do not want to be a Coldplay (ugh) coach…. I do not want to fix you, but I would like the opportunity to help. I am not preaching that exercise is a cure all, however I have already learnt that understanding how, and why, it can have a bearing on mental as well as physical health is a potent cocktail. To that end, my studies have led me to further analyse the foundations of my core exercise beliefs.

Six million years ago saw the passing of the last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees. Three and a half million years after that, humans evolved in Africa and began using tools, five hundred thousand years later, humans started spreading to other parts of the world. Whilst apes remained nimble in trees, humans developed an instinct for exploration and moving on the ground that became our natural environment.

Since the separation of the human genus from that of apes, we have not spent the vast majority of our existence vegetating on couches surrounded and distracted by the beeps of modern life. Our networks have been that of a few hundred people, rather than the millions we routinely compare ourselves to on anti-social media today. We have historically engaged with our peers on a face-to-face personal level rather than through a computer or phone screen. We have run outside as a matter of self-preservation rather than to create a false hardship for our bodies.

Neuroscientists have argued that the entire purpose of the human brain is to produce movement as that is the only way of interacting with the world around us. So, depriving our bodies of their natural moving state is bound to have consequences.

A car battery will go flat if left unused for a period of time. So will we if we suffer from a lack of movement and stimulation in the body and brain. Evolution has hardwired us to survive, and that means breathing, moving, eating, sleeping, procreating, feeling part of a community, cooperating with others, working toward a purpose, learning, growing, and achieving. All of these contribute to us feeling safe and are why it feels good to eat your favourite meal, run as fast as you can, look after another person, receive praise, and assemble flatpack furniture with no parts missing or left over.

Our body correlating movement with survival dates back to when we began leaving Africa to explore the world around us. Whilst the Agricultural Revolution (the establishment of permanent settlement and the domestication of plants and animals) took place twelve thousand years ago, the industrial revolution was less than three hundred and the technological revolution less than forty. So as a species, we have been forced to adapt to comparatively recent changes in a miniscule time period, rather than the huge expanse that went before it.

Most people have heard of the pleasure hormone dopamine, but not everyone associates it with the principle of reward. It is a thank you from our body to us for keeping it alive and healthy. Some studies have shown that improvements in mood can be seen after as little as 10 minutes of aerobic activity but tend to be highest after at least 20 minutes. As a species we want to enjoy life. The only way to do so is to have a healthy body and mind. Evolutionary intentional design, not chance, dictates that our biology rewards us for every step we take toward vitality.

Exercise is powerful, because it is linked to our traits, values and needs of self-fulfilment, exploration, excitement, connection, and proficiency. These factors are our whole meaning of existence, and we can learn them via exercise and movement. Our body and mind will thank us more for learning courage, resilience, and teamwork in this way than they will ever do via work, a book, or a podcast.

Exercise harkens back to when as a species we decided to leave Africa and settle the rest of our planet. It is a return to our ancestral life that we have almost forgotten. We are designed, built, and evolved to live outdoors. Domestication is a chronologically new concept that our brains are still trying to adjust to. Surely it is ridiculous to expect that there would be no impact of trying to adjust to a new way of living in a short space of time after having been the same for millions of years.

Exercise allows us to connect to our body, be appreciative of what we can do and respect our physical form more. If we can push our body and mind further through exercise than we thought we could, that mental fortitude will appear in other areas of life. We are learning and growing by creating and overcoming that false hardship. Exercise also makes us feel young and free. It reminds us of when we were young because that is the last time, we were totally free. The senses of exploration and adventure only add to that experience and are further residue from our African exodus.

It was not too long ago that I would have dismissed some ancestral ways of living as holistic touchy-feely rubbish, but I can now see their origins and fundamental benefits. Walking outdoors in nature - living the way that we used to; exercising - moving like we used to; meditating - not having our minds distracted like we used to; mindfulness - thinking and problem solving like we used to; cold water therapy - regulating our body temperature like we used to; yoga - restoring our body to move like we used to; breathwork - regulating our nervous system like we used to.

The modern world spends lots of effort encouraging people to start exercising, but pays little attention to improving the actual experience of exercise. Our bodies and minds are conditioned to hunt. We are continuing to hunt, but in that modern world we are often encouraged to hunt for the wrong things.

Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world. The “establishment” views eating less, as an economic contraction and a defeat for consumerism. This is because people who eat too much and buy diet products contribute to economic growth twice over. Its hardly surprising therefore to see that “establishment” refusing to proliferate the natural benefits of exercise.

I have learnt that there are seven markers of health. Physical – genetics; emotional - trauma and how the brain rewires itself to cope with change; intellectual – future; social – others; spiritual – status and values; occupational - meaningful work; environmental – nature.

Neglect of these markers will inevitably lead to mental struggle, to feelings of being low, depressed, anxious, or stressed. Remedy of that struggle can be achieved by identifying which of those markers is deficient and addressing it. Each marker is inextricably linked to the others and therefore can have both a negative, and more importantly a positive ripple effect.

There is an argument that biological evolution outweighs exposure to environmental factors. Opinions have been put that poor mental health is solely a problem with the brain, and can be medicated out of. But what if those opinions are wrong? What if environmental factors are to blame? Genetic makeup will always be a factor, but focusing on the environment that those genetics have to exist in is of far greater importance because it is easier, and therefore more significant, to manipulate and control.

Poor mental health is a social health issue. Depression is not being insane; it shows an individual to be perfectly sane as it is the brain’s natural response to an inhospitable environment. It is a normal response for living in an abnormal world. Recognising and returning to those ancestral ways of living can return us to normality, even if the world itself is incapable of doing so.

Exercise is a gift, it can teach self-awareness, self-worth, confidence, body appreciation, calm, connection, courage, adaptability, resilience, discipline, variety, independence, identity, evolution, and aspiration. Most importantly, it can be so, so, much fun. On that basis, why would you ever choose not to do it?

Inspiration from MHEC Limited, arrangement by Steve Fox

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