How to use exercise as a form of self-care to support your mental and physical health.
Self-care is a decades-old concept, but it was only a few years ago that it really started getting attention online. Between June and December 2017, Google searches for self-care doubled, and you couldn’t scroll through Instagram without landing on experts sharing tips about the practice that, at the time, were often focused on bubble baths and spa appointments.
Since then, we’ve faced a pandemic in which we learned that looking after our mental and physical health takes a bit more hard work than a manicure. Some people found it involved cancelling all plans, quitting their job or ditching toxic friends.
While that might be at the extreme end of self-care, many of us have found that the reality of looking after our wellbeing involves tough love when it comes to fitness regimes and nutrition. Perhaps it means setting an early alarm for morning yoga, committing to alcohol-free evenings or having a non-negotiable screen-free day once a week.
With self-care searches still on the rise, it’s clear we haven’t nailed exactly how to use it. “Just go for a run” isn’t good advice, nor is “eat more vegetables”. We need more nuance, especially as treading the line between doing enough and doing too much is crucial to ensuring your new habits aren’t doing more harm than good.
With that in mind, we asked experts how they really use their health and fitness habits as a form of self-care so you can try to do the same.
Practical self-care tips from health experts
“Have a flexible routine” – Renee McGregor, dietitian and women’s health expert
“When it comes to fitness-based self-care, I find not having a fixed regime is important. I love running but it’s not always the best choice if I’m feeling stressed as it adds more load to my nervous system. Sometimes, it’s actually better to rest, journal or choose solitude instead of fitness.
“That flexibility and self-awareness is the most important part of self-care. It is not about having a daily ritual, but instead giving yourself what you actually need in that moment.”
“Always do the bare minimum” – Emilia Thompson PhD, registered nutritionist and health coach
“I go back to my non-negotiables: the lowest level of things that I know I need to feel my best self each week. For example, I prefer to do resistance training five times a week, but my non-negotiable is three times. As long as I get that done, I know I’ve done enough for myself.
“I like to remind myself that doing the small things always has the biggest difference in a tiny amount of time, like waking up every day and practising gratitude for being alive for five seconds; drinking a pint of water before my coffee takes 30 seconds.
“People try to do too much and do too much too perfectly and when they can’t (because who can do anything perfectly?), they think there’s no point. If your self-care routine is five minutes of yoga and meditation in bed while you fall asleep, that’s incredible. The day you realise that a 20-minute workout consistently is better than an occasional 60-minute workout, your life changes.”
“Use fitness to fuel a mind-body connection” – Donna Nobel, yoga teacher
“In order to best look after myself, I need to be authentic and avoid acting in line with societal expectations. To do that, I use yoga and mediation to tune into what my body and mind really need. Through gentle movement, I can connect my body to my mind, so my physical self can tell my brain where it’s lacking and I can act on it.”
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“ I use exercise to release stress” – Eliabeth Renfrey, fitness instructor
“I find light cardio, usually in the form of jogging or cycling but occasionally a YouTube dance workout, is the best self-care practice. How I do it is just as important as doing it: I keep my heart rate under 68% of my max (which I track on a smartwatch) or work at a rate of perceived exertion of about 3/10 – a level where my breathing rate is slightly higher than normal but I could still hold a conversation.
“Up to 30 minutes in this zone benefits me mentally without leaving me even more exhausted, and gives me an endorphin boost, lowers my cortisol levels and results in a better night’s sleep.”
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).