Workout for the brain, not the brawn
If you’re working out to lose weight, Jonathan McGavock would say you’re focusing on the wrong goal: you should be active for your mental health.
McGavock is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics, at the University of Manitoba, and a research scientist at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba. His research focuses on the prevention and management of type-2 diabetes in youth, with a particular focus on physical activity.
His research group focuses on a holistic approach, not just on body weight and blood sugars. From the standpoint of his research, McGavock says three things are key to creating a positive link between physical and mental health.
- Do physical activity for your mind.
- Find a friend to do it with.
- Do it outside.
“In terms of mental health, if you were to ask someone who just spent half an hour on a treadmill or especially if they were outside walking through the woods, the first thing most people will report is lower stress and generally feeling better about themselves. A daily walk is something that allows you to get into your mind, think about things and reduce stress. It’s a way to reduce the noise, if you will,” McGavock says.
“Unfortunately, when most people decide to get physically active they do it for the wrong reasons. They’ll do it to look better: to lose weight or build muscles. But you don’t see those results every single day. If you’re doing exercise to lose weight, it could take up to six months to see a change, and even then it may not happen if you’re not exercising at an adequate level. On the other hand, you get mental health benefits no matter what, and you get it instantly. And I’d say if you do it outside, you get even more bang for your buck because there is something very peaceful and calming about being in green space.”
That covers his first and third point, but what about the second point, to be active with a friend? Why is that significant in the age of wearable devices like Fitbits, which track and encourage activities?
McGavock’s research shows that people who are active with a group of friends are more likely to sustain that lifestyle. Fitbits and other wearable devices, he says, are good for goal-setting people.
“If you’re someone who’s not a goal-setting person, having someone come to your office and say, ‘Hey, want to come for a walk with me?’ really resonates with an important part of our makeup as human beings, which is a sense of belonging. When people find that sense of belonging, they tend to be more resilient and have a better well-being.
“I don’t think a Fitbit is as powerful as a group of people who know that at lunch they are going to go for laps around campus because in that moment, in terms of mental health, they will be connecting with others, they’ll be outside, talking about their day and getting things off their chest. And on days when you’re not feeling great, the Fitbit is not going to motivate you to get out there, whereas your friend will.”