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A Health Body and Brain

This post is inspired by a recent podcast, as well as some reflections on my own life during the last couple of weeks.

I love Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s ‘Feel Better, Live More’ podcasts and a recent one, with Dr Tommy Wood, explored the connection between fitness and keeping your brain healthy. When you think about this, it does make sense – the concept of giving your brain a reason to stay alive by constantly challenging it. This is especially true of adults because the brain works so hard during childhood development and is then in danger of becoming lazy if it isn’t stimulated beyond that phase. For this reason, keeping a basic level of fitness is beneficial on so many levels. Cognitively challenging your brain is also super important and the podcast reminds us that a good balance between constant learning and regular physical activity gives our brains a reason to keep going.

I enjoyed listening to this in a smug kind of way as it kind of reminded me of what I touched on in last week’s blog about challenging ourselves and how much benefit this gives us. I ended the blog with the quote, “if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you” and I still think that’s true.

However, I also started to reflect on how important it is to allow ourselves to recover fully from the challenge. If you know me personally, or you read my ‘Meet the Maker’ post last week, you’ll know that I do a lot of running. I am also training to qualify as an England Athletics running coach and recently completed a day in the classroom (well.. a day on Zoom) much of which was spent discussing the really important concept to understand as a coach (and an athlete) about when to push the body and when to encourage it to rest. When you’re pushing to improve physically, the process of doing this puts stress on the body, it hurts the body, but it is necessary for the improvement to happen. However, if you keep pushing and pushing without recovery, all that happens is you keep applying stress so at some point that’s going to do some damage. What a lot of people don’t appreciate is how important recovery is to the body. It’s actually only when the body starts the healing process, that the strength is built and the preparation for the next phase of stress can take place. As you work through each stress cycle, you get a little stronger and more able to endure a bit more each time… winner :)

Despite knowing this, unfortunately I recently had to learn the hard way what happens when you don’t recover properly and as a result I am currently nursing a muscle injury. As an aspiring coach, this is not something I am proud of but sometimes we’re just not that good at listening to our own bodies and this is the point of my reflection.

On the flip side, my spell of forced reduced exertion has actually led to me developing an appreciation for the slower pace of life and becoming more productive and energised as a result. If I think back to how I was feeling a few weeks ago, just before that fateful run, I was in the mindset of punishing myself not pushing myself. I was striving to reach a goal I wasn’t hitting but instead of listening to my body, I was punishing it for not performing the way I wanted it to and making it work harder. I was surprised when I pulled up in pain, but I shouldn’t have been and I know that now. I also know that the productivity and appreciation I am currently experiencing is definitely down to me giving myself the recovery time I obviously so desperately needed.

It occurs to me that this is probably also true of exercising your brain. If you feel drained, tired, unable to absorb any more information, then it’s probably a sign you need to stop force feeding it and slow it down. I guess it’s like a fuel tank – once it’s full then it’s full, you can’t keep pouring more in, you need to drive for a bit and just allow the car to get on with doing what it was designed to do until it needs a top up again.

As I’ve got older I think I’ve become less apologetic about slowing down when I need to (mentally anyway… physically not so much!) I try to remind myself not to feel that I owe it to everyone to keep going if I can’t. Reflecting on my recent injury, I’ve realised that a mindset of ‘punish’ not ‘push’ isn’t healthy with physical exercise either. It’s even more important now, during the pandemic, that we don’t pressurise ourselves to feel this way physically or mentally. How can allowing your body time to regroup and get strong ever be perceived as a sign of weakness?

How ironic is it that I was scrolling through my albums to find a suitable picture for this post and I came across this that I made last year?

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