Editors Note: This article is part of our ongoing series about how to support wellness at work during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Kirsten McCormick
In my work as a personal wellness coach, I always address three foundational practices that play a significant role in helping us maintain mental and physical endurance, whether getting through a long workday, through months of stay-at-home orders during a global pandemic, and through this time of civil unrest. They include quieting the mind, stabilizing the body and fortifying the immune system. Focusing on these three areas will not only enhance your endurance, but also improve your efficiency at work.
In our professional lives, especially when we are working hard during stressful periods, we can pretend to maintain control. But eventually, if we neglect them, one of these three critical elements in our health will throw us off balance. Right now, people are spending more time sitting at their computer screens, in postures that are not ergonomically sound.
Breathwork for Endurance
It’s been proven that breathing in the appropriate way reduces stress. The way you breathe can restrict your movement and cause unnecessary neck and back pain. Spending long hours at a computer has meant that many of us are sitting in positions that collapse our rib cage. This positioning prevents our diaphragm and respiratory muscles from doing the necessary work to do in order to breathe optimally. Poor posture forces us to use our accessory musculature to assist in breathing. This leads to tightness and pain in the neck and shoulders, reduced mobility, internal physical stress and mental fatigue.
Take a deep breath. Do you feel your shoulders lift up, or do you feel your belly and rib cage expand? If your belly expands, fantastic. If you feel your shoulders elevate and your chest or upper back expand, I recommend working on diaphragmatic breathing (see video below) and mobility work for your postural muscles. This breathing exercise will help to reduce aches and pains in your upper body.
Studies show that controlling our breathwork can help us relearn the proper breathing mechanics that we lose as long as we adopt the wrong posture. Breathwork techniques also increase mental focus and endurance and decrease stress. By learning how to breathe properly, and by focusing on quieting our mind, we can help to recalibrate our nervous system. This shift will transform the sympathetic (fight-or-flight response) state, in which our body produces the stress hormone cortisol, into a parasympathetic state, in which rest, digestion and recovery can take place. Getting into this parasympathetic state has been shown to decrease stress and reduce cortisol production. The postural shift also allows us to strengthen our diaphragm and increase the oxygen supply throughout our body. Taken together, this increases performance and endurance.
Diaphragmatic Breathwork video
Mindful Movement for a Healthy Posture
Our daily routines aren’t always easy on our minds or on our body. Our bodies and brains adapt and change as a result of the repetition of our movements, our posture and our experience. How you sit and how you do (or don’t) move has an impact on your nervous system, which reinforces that posture and etches that pattern more deeply into your musculoskeletal system. Improving our posture and breath improves our neural plasticity. In other words, each repetition tells our central nervous system to create mental and structural changes.
When you move well, all forms of physical activity and daily tasks, even sitting at your desk, become easier and far more enjoyable. Here are a few tips for creating more mobility and maintaining proper posture for maintaining healthy joints and a pain-free body.
Move often throughout the day, with small mobility or stretch breaks. Set a timer once an hour, to get up, walk around, fill up a glass of water and do a few movements, such as this desk stretch routine.
Frequently alternate between sitting and standing postures. Make your calls while you take a walk.
Rather than approaching exercise and movement as a way of maintaining shape and physical fitness, consider reframing your mindset around your approach to exercise as a way of life. A healthier lifestyle leads to greater health and longevity overall, mentally, physically and spiritually. Movement need not only be in a gym, as you slog away on a treadmill or elliptical. I encourage people to find movements and activities that they enjoy, and that will sustain their motivation. Consider the goal that you are working toward, such as biking in the summer, or increasing your strength to be able to do a full push-up or pull-up. This is likely to reap more benefits for you, mentally and physically, than a vague goal of simply exercising more. Find your why, find out what makes movement important and fun for you, and move toward that.
Aerobic Conditioning for the Immune System
In periods of stress, we produce more of the stress hormone cortisol. This can inhibit many critical functions of our immune system, such as the ability of our T-cells to respond to infectious viruses.
Aerobic conditioning or cardiorespiratory exercise is known to have a profound impact on reducing stress and restoring the normal functioning of our immune system. Every time we exercise, we mobilize immune cells, priming them for a fight against infection. We also stimulate the production of endorphins, our body’s natural mood boosters and painkillers. This is especially important during this time of stress.
Unfortunately these days, most of us are not getting enough physical activity, because we have been mandated to stay inside or because our gyms are closed. This lowers our NEAT (or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), the energy we expend for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or exercise. Our usual daily tasks—grocery shopping, walking to the car, walking to and from meeting rooms, or to the day care or school pickup and drop-off—have been significantly curtailed, sometimes altogether.
Choose a cardiorespiratory movement that you enjoy, which will motivate you to put in the time and effort. Consider putting in 20 to 30 minutes a day of focused aerobic work that gets your heart rate up. If it’s challenging to find that time all at once, break it up into smaller blocks of 10 minutes at a time.
Wellness Is Not All or Nothing
Focus on actions, not outcomes. By focusing on small daily actions and habits that you can incorporate into your lifestyle, you can slowly build up your endurance and decrease stress, anxiety, physical discomfort and sickness. Finding the time to quiet your mind, move your body and boost your immune system will help you create the mental and physical endurance you need right now, and into the future.
Kirsten McCormick is a movement and performance specialist, personal trainer, yoga teacher and nutrition coach in Seattle. With a degree in clinical exercise science, she has more than 15 years of experience coaching in the fitness industry. Using a holistic and science-based approach, her philosophy centers on improving foundational strength, mobility, breathing mechanics and lifestyle factors to maximize performance and overall wellness. www.runningwithforks.com