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Just 10 minutes of exercise a day could help your mental health during lockdown

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Remember March, when everyone suddenly decided that they were an athlete and began sharing their fastest 5K times on Instagram stories and talking about all the home workouts they were doing? The pressure to become the best version of ourselves during lockdown was very real.

Now we enter lockdown 2.0, many of us are feeling the same level of anxiety about being productive. “I’m starting to feel the pressure of going back to work after furlough, doing a part-time masters, spending time with my boyfriend, FaceTiming my family and trying to exercise now,” my friend text me the other day. 

My attempt at comforting advice may be a surprise to you. “Stop freaking out about exercise,” I, a fitness writer, told her. “A little bit of movement is good for your mental health, but now is not the time to be the fittest and most dedicated you’ve ever been.”

I think it’s a message we could all do with listening to right now. While I love spending an hour or so exercising, right now we need to see everything through a slightly more compassionate lens.

“When it comes to exercise, something is always better than nothing,” explains sport and exercise expert Dr Folusha Oluwajana. That means that, generally, the more we do the better the outcome. But sometimes that’s not always the case, as Dr Oluwajana explains.

“There’s been lots of research in the last few years that shows that health benefits can be seen with lower levels of exercise than was previously thought. Even just 10 minutes a day could actually come with considerable benefits.”

woman walking outdoors in activewear
Walking: do you need to stretch before and after a walk?

Is 10 minutes of exercise a day enough for physical health?

Currently, the NHS advises 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity a week, which can be broken down into smaller chunks or performed at once. But “research shows that around 10 minutes of moderate exercise can improve fitness levels and metabolic markers, such as insulin sensitivity and glucose control,” Dr Oluwajana says.

Plus, with lockdown seeing us all staying inside for longer, 10 minutes can help to improve flexibility and mobility, reducing pain and strain of sedentary behaviour, according to Dr Oluwajana. 

However, she does say that 10 minutes of exercise is probably not enough to build strength or endurance, but “even if you have been working towards a certain goal in the gym, it will take a lot less work to maintain your fitness levels than it did to develop them in the first place. We can still maintain strength and fitness by doing less intense exercise – it’s harder than you think to lose your gains.”

Is 10 minutes of exercise a day enough for mental health?

Most importantly for right now, the idea that lots is better than little isn’t necessarily true when it comes to our mental health. “Any amount of exercise can help boost mood and is a well-known way of managing mental health problems, such as low mood and anxiety, which we know are going to be the things that maybe become more prevalent, or more severe, as we go into a second lockdown,” Dr Oluwajana says.

And, when it comes to mood-boosting movement, it’s not necessarily anything to do with how hard you sweat, either. “While I’d encourage higher intensities for physical health, even just walking, yoga, or doing anything that can take your mind away from what’s going on and focus on yourself on your body for 10 minutes can really help,” she says.

A recent review found that 10 minutes walking in nature positively impacted mental wellbeing, while another study from 2018 found it was just as good as meditation to improve mood. 10 minutes of stretching during the working day has also been shown to reduce levels of anxiety and exhaustion by the University of Zaragoza, Spain

Aside from the movement itself, allowing yourself to lower the pressure when it comes to training can be really important for our stress levels, particularly if you are struggling with feeling overwhelmed or exhausted right now. “With most self-improvement activities, there is a line where it can start to have a negative impact on your mental health. So if you’re striving to workout to the point where it’s causing you stress, you’re worrying about how not working out will impact you or your body and your exercise is impacting your work or your socialising, I might say that you need to take a step back from it,” says Dr Oluwajana.

The ultimate question is, is 10 minutes of moving a day really enough to keep you going for the next month? “10 minutes may not be enough to improve fitness or strength but it is enough to have some mild health benefits, particularly mental health benefits and can help in terms of flexibility and mobility, especially in a time when we are spending so long sitting down,” concludes Dr Oluwajana. 

10-minute workouts that will support your mental wellbeing

  • Strong in 10 workouts

    Every Tuesday and Friday we post our Strong In 10 workouts to the Strong Women instagram page – three moves performed back to back, three times round. You’ve got this. 

  • 10 minute morning yoga

    Loosen up with this really gentle but effective morning yoga routine. If this is all you do today, you’ll have had a good day.

  • Quick HIIT circuit

    If you fancy something more intense, there’s always The Body Coach. Try this 10-minute HIIT circuit to get sweaty.

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

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).