Part 2: Practicing self-acceptance and self-honesty during exercise
The fun we have when we exercise doesn’t come from any specific state of mind. It doesn’t come from lifting heavy weights or smashing through workouts. The fun we have when we exercise comes from connecting with others and connecting with ourselves. It comes from being present in the moment and being real with ourselves. Each time we do an exercise or do a workout, we are getting feedback from the coaches, from our peers, and from our bodies about what we’re doing well and what we may need to work on. The key to REALLY enjoying exercise is in developing the ability to sort through the plethora of feedback we receive from the various sources, and using it for further positive development. When we take to heart the feedback we receive, it becomes self-knowledge, and “knowing yourself” is very important.
Self-knowledge isn’t always good news, but it’s always news we need to hear. Sometimes the feedback we receive from our coaches, peers, or bodies can hurt our ego. Sometimes we have a picture in our head about who we are and how we “should” be, and sometimes the feedback we receive doesn’t fit with this picture we have of ourselves. This is when things start to get uncomfortable, but this is when self-honesty AND self-acceptance are very important.
Self-honesty is about identifying the false identity we use to cover up our true selves. Many times, we say we’re “just being honest” with ourselves and with others when really, we’re just using that as an excuse to express the anger or pain that covers our vulnerabilities. This is where the acceptance of self and others is important. If we can accept the current situation for exactly what it is and without positive or negative judgments; if we can let go of any potential rewards that might be gained from success or stop trying to avoid the hurt of failure, then we can become more self-honest. Both seeking rewards and avoiding harm can lead to false identity which leads to a disconnection with the self and ultimately to a lack of self-honesty. To be self-honest, we must let go of the results and stop trying to be perfect.
Next time you’re in the gym doing a workout, try being aware of the feedback you’re receiving from the coaches, from your peers, and from your body. Notice how this feedback makes you feel. Does it fit with how you see yourself? Does it make you feel good? Does it make you feel bad? Then, try to let go of those good or bad feelings, accept yourself and those around you, and use the self-knowledge you’ve gained to move to the next task.
Breaking Through the Trance
Mindfulness has been described by Jon Kabat-Zinn (creator of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program) as the "awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally." It has been suggested that training oneself to be more mindful can decrease anxiety, depression, and a plethora of other mental health disturbances. For a great overview of the research on mindfulness training improving mental health, see the article from Hoffman, Sawyer, Witt, and Oh (2010) in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology called The Effect of Mindfulness on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review.
Just as being mindful is described as having a connection to the mind and the body, the state of being in TRANCE is described as a disconnection for the body and its experiences. When we spend our time absorbed in our phones, checking out all types of social media, listening to podcasts, mindlessly watching television, etc. we are escaping from reality and living in a state of trance. Over time, being in a state of trance and escape can lead to the loss of identity. When this happens, we become machine-like in that we’re unable to connect to others or our natural environment. This is the opposite of being mindful and ends up with us rushing around from task to task and unable to enjoy the people around us or the amazing life experiences we face each day.
This makes me think of a quote I once read of a mother who had a young daughter with a terminal illness. Once they received the terminal diagnosis, the mother decided to devote all her energy to connecting with her daughter for all the time they had left together. When the mother was asked how she spent her time connecting with her daughter, she said “I just try to enjoy every single moment we spend together. I have no time to rush.” This should be a reminder to all of us that if we live in a state of trance and rush around from task to task, we will be left at the end with no appreciation for what happened.
One great tool to break through the trance is EXERCISE. Effective exercise requires a great deal of focus on the present moment. Doing a heavy squat or a snatching movement with weights flying over our heads requires focus on every single rep of every single set. When we lose focus we often fail and occasionally hurt ourselves. Exercise also requires us to have a connection to our body. When we’re doing a tough workout we’re often feeling pains in muscles that we had no idea they even existed. Sometimes we’re doing new movements that we haven’t done before. When these things happen, we’re developing a deeper connection with our bodies. When the mind and the body are in the same place at the same time that’s called true (or sacred) presence. This is when we’re most able to enjoy all the beauty that is within and surrounding us. NAMASTE
Sugar and Mood
By now we’ve all heard that sugar is bad and has been associated with physical health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and other diseases. The most recent condemnation of sugar comes from a study (Knuppel, Shipley, Llewellyn, and Brunner, 2017) that links sugar and mental health (more specifically depression). There are four possible explanations of this link between sugar and depression: 1. Sugar could influence the levels of a chemical in the brain called “brain derived neurotropic factor” which has been associated with high-sugar diets and is believed to have a link with depression; 2. Sugar has been linked to increased inflammation in the body (i.e. inflammatory markers), which could also depress mood; 3. Regularly eating a lot of sugar could cause the body to respond with an “exaggerated insulin response” which can then influence hormone levels and mood; and 4. Dopamine (the happy brain chemical) is released when eating sugar. Over time, the repeated release of high amounts of dopamine can lead to both an addiction to sugar and eventually depression.
This study tracked 8,087 people over 22 years (part of a larger study called the Whitehall Study II) and asked them questions about their diet, physical activity, sleep, physical health, mental health, and some demographic questions. From the study, Knuppel et al. (2017), concluded:
“We found an adverse effect of higher sugar intake on mental health cross-sectionally and 5 years later in a study based on 23,245 repeated measures in men and women aged between 39 and 83. Further, we found an increased likelihood for incident Common Mood Disorders (CMD) in men and some evidence of recurrent depression in both sexes with higher intakes of sugar from sweet food/beverages. These associations with incident CMD could not be explained by socio-demo graphic factors, other diet-related factors, adiposity and other diseases although the association with recurrent depression was explained by other diet-related factors.”
From this specific type of study, we can’t necessarily say this relationship is causal or that sugar causes depression. However, taking repeated measurements with the same participants over the course of 22 years offers a strong enough link to raise real concerns about the consumption of sugar. The researchers also explored the possibility of mood influencing the level of sugar consumption. Over the course of the 22-year study, the authors "found no evidence for a potential reverse effect: participants did not change their sugar intake after suffering from common mood disorders."
Be aware, this one study does not prove that over-consumption of sugar causes depression. The takeaway from this blog post and study should be that eating a lot of sugar could contribute to a decrease in mood. Needless to say, more rigorous research is needed to explore this link, but at present we have more than enough evidence say it is important to be vigilant about how much sugar we consume and know that it does have some type of impact on our overall health.
(based on the article from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2017/07/31/the-link-between-sugar-and-depression-what-you-should-know/#55c933645bbf)
Knuppel, A., Shipley, M. J., Llewellyn, C. H., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorders and depression: Prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Nature Scientific Reports, 7 (6287). Open online.
The Gut-Brain Connection
When you’re healthy, bacteria (called gut microbiota) are kept safely inside your gut. For the most part, the bacteria and your gut live in harmony. Occasionally, the normal channels of communication from your gut can be hijacked by these bacteria. The gut has a bidirectional relationship with the central nervous system, this is called the “gut-brain axis”, and allows the gut to send and receive signals to and from the brain. Links have been made between this microbiota and depression, anxiety and stress. Your gut bacteria may even affect how well you sleep. There are other ways gut bacteria might affect your brain, including via bacterial toxins and metabolites, nutrient-scavenging, changing your taste-receptors and stirring up your immune system. We can imagine these symptoms would have a large impact on all parts of life, including the fun bits like exercise and recovery.
This study (Bravo, J. A., et al. 2011) found that adding a strain of the bacteria lactobacillus (which is also found in yoghurt) to the gut of normal mice reduced their anxiety levels. This effect was disappeared after cutting the vagus nerve – the main connection between brain and gut. This could suggest the gut-brain axis is being used by bacteria to affect the brain.
The biggest question that still looms large is: How do we get a healthy gut microbiome? It’s possible that we can simply eat more yoghurt (that contains strains of “healthy” bacteria) and take pre- and pro-biotics supplements. However, it may not be this simple. It’s possible that each person’s body has its own definition of healthy gut bacteria, and the path to a “health gut” is an individual pursuit. More research is needed to answer this question. BUT what we know for sure is that having a healthy gut is more beneficial that having an unhealthy gut.
(based on the article from: http://theconversation.com/gut-feeling-how-your-microbiota-affects-your-mood-sleep-and-stress-levels-65107)