Exercise: Body vs. The Mind

Exercise: Body vs. The Mind

Hi folks, this is a re-written post from over a month ago that immediately followed my post Post-ABI: Depression. However as I explained in earlier blog posts, I felt I had very much short-changed you in terms of the amount of information I had provided regarding what it is like to suffer with mental health issues. Over the last month though, I feel I have been very open with you when talking about my own experiences of mental health problems (which can be found via the following links: Go Back A Step – Depression, Identifying Triggers, Managing My Mental Health, Anxiety & Low Self Esteem, Socialisation & Emotional Instability). Within these posts I feel I have examined both the topics at hand and myself very deeply and hopefully provided you with some useful information. I feel as though I have agonised enough about the things that are pulling us back and it is now time to look at ways we can help ourselves and move forward. So this is where I should have posted about exercise, when it was the right time to do it. So here it is, in it’s rightful place as we examine how we can help ourselves.

One moment your life is mapped out, you know who you are, what you want and where you are going. We wanted to live the dream! But what if life is not a dream though, what if the dream that movies, news coverage, advertisements and politicians have described and tell you is imminent if you work hard enough turns out to be fake? What if it suddenly turns into a nightmare? The next moment you find yourself in a hospital bed with your life changed, as if someone has blindfolded you and dropped you in the middle of a rainforest and told you to find your way home. After many mishaps, mistakes and the feeling of injustice at the ridiculousness of the size of the challenge you have been set it is inevitable that feelings of anger, despair, futility and so many others will inevitably pile up to the extent that you don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.

Depression & Exercise

fitness-719539_1280

Now we all know that exercise is good for us in the conventional sense. We should all exercise daily according to our GP so as to keep blood pressure down, keep the blood pumping and oxygenated, to keep ourselves at the right weight and to generally make us look and FEEL better about ourselves. Depression is the parasite, a condition that is fed by our negative thoughts, our dark desires, our self-loathing, or stresses, traumatic experiences and our hatred. There are many ways to control that parasite though, not just medications (which, in my opinion, are handed out extremely frivolously these days), but by more natural methods that we can do ourselves with a little discipline and hard work. I personally believe that if you are susceptible and vulnerable to mental health issues that it is a case of getting those negative thought patterns well controlled, that with the right lifestyle we can ensure that they lie dormant for long periods. What I believe is that when it comes to depression, it is something that is linked to your own mind, the type of person you are and your own experiences. Therefore I believe that, as is the case with ABI, that you aren’t really ever cured. Because of the type of person you (or we, I also suffer from issues with depression anxiety and anger) are and all that you have been through will be prone to spells of depression or moments of anxiety for the rest of your days. This is also the reason I believe there are other ways to deal with them aside from just throwing pills and medications at the problem in the hope that it goes away.

The Science

There are two key parts to how exercise can keep us healthy not just physically but improve our state of mind as well. The first is the release of endorphins and the second contributory factor is ensuring that our blood remains oxygenated and circulating well. I will do my best to explain the processes, as I understand them but I will say this now; I am no expert scientist.

What Are Endorphins?

nerves-346928_1280

Endorphins are a neurotransmitter (a chemical that continues the passage of signals from one neuron to the next) key to the central nervous system. They play an extremely important role in the nervous system as they can encourage or suppress the signaling of nearby neurons. They are also our brains response to certain stimulants, such as pain as well as emotional stimulation to the brain. Think of endorphins as the brains own drug and react mainly with the part of the brain responsible for blocking out pain and controlling our emotional state of mind.

While endorphins block pain and control our emotions, they also cause that great feeling of excitement and enjoyment from the things we are really passionate about, enjoy doing or are just something of a giddy thrill. So when we do an exercise that we are extremely passionate about, not only do endorphins block out or relieve us of issues such as pain but also emphasise the positive emotional state we are in when are enjoying our exercise. When you hear people talk about the “runners high” that is due to the rush of endorphins the runner is getting while their brain is active and their body is being pushed.

Oxygenated Blood

blood-75301_640

Now, I’m not going to get too caught up in this. I’ll keep it brief, as I’m not sure exactly what the correct scientific explanation would be (Here is a good article on oxygenation of the body and body detoxification courtesy of Natural News.

To keep it simple, the oxygen from the air we breathe in diffuses through membranes into our red blood cells, the cells designed to carry oxygen around the body. The red blood cells then carry this oxygen to the places where it is needed most in the body.

The best way to ensure a good supply of oxygen in the blood and that your organs (particularly the brain), muscles and nervous system stay oxygenated is to focus hard on breathing patterns with slow and steady breathing.

fitness-1327255_640

To help maintain both of these things, a steady supply of endorphins and a healthy supply of oxygen to the blood, those breathing patterns I spoke of earlier combined with regular aerobic exercise (hiking, running, cycling) or just breathing and stretching exercises such as yoga or tai-chi. The point is exercises.

I can guarantee that with the continued focus on breathing patterns and with regular daily exercise (it doesn’t have to be a big grand effort, just walking for half an hour a day) can have a really positive effect on the state of mind due to your body’s natural reaction, the release of endorphins; your body’s own natural high.

Confidence

One thing that exercise also provides that is a huge boost in the fight against depression is confidence in ourselves. During recovery and rehabilitation post-ABI I know that there are so many things that are foreign to us and that have changed, against our wishes. The situation escalated beyond our knowledge and control. However, when we find a particular type of exercise that we enjoy, we can implement an exercise regime that will enable us to set targets and, by achieving them, bring back an element of control.

abs-1145723_1280

Depression can cause issues such as a lack of appetite, or a tendency to over eat, both of which cause issues with weight. Exercise can help to counteract both of those things wether it is exercising to build up an appetite or exercising to burn off excess calories you have consumed. Exercise can be used merely to keep your body in balance and ensure that you stay in good condition and that your health doesn’t suffer. It can also be used to set yourself goals such as adding muscle definition, increasing targets such as distance run or weight lost or gained. With regards to exercise, it can work as a way to motivate ourselves and as a tangible, visual incentive because it shows that the effort we are going to is worth it and the fitter we get the better we look, the better we look the better and more confident we feel.

NB. For more information on how exercise can act as a positive influence in life post-ABI check out the inspiring story of Nick Verron and how exercise changed his life after his brain injury. Follow the link to his blog: nickverron.com

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Depression – The Positive Effects of Exercise

Depression – The Positive Effects of Exercise

One moment your life is mapped out, you know who you are, what you want and where you are going. We wanted to live the dream! But what if life is not a dream though, what if the dream that movies, news coverage, advertisements and politicians have described and tell you is imminent if you work hard enough turns out to be fake? What if it suddenly turns into a nightmare? The next moment you find yourself in a hospital bed with your life changed, as if someone has blindfolded you and dropped you in the middle of a rainforest and told you to find your way home. After many mishaps, mistakes and the feeling of injustice at the ridiculousness of the size of the challenge you have been set it is inevitable that feelings of anger, despair, futility and so many others will inevitably pile up to the extent that you don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.

Depression & Exercise

fitness-719539_1280

Now we all know that exercise is good for us in the conventional sense. We should all exercise daily according to our GP so as to keep blood pressure down, keep the blood pumping and oxygenated, to keep ourselves at the right weight and to generally make us look and FEEL better about ourselves. Depression is the parasite, a condition that is fed by our negative thoughts, our dark desires, our self-loathing, or stresses, traumatic experiences and our hatred. There are many ways to control that parasite though, not just medications (which, in my opinion, are handed out extremely frivolously these days), but by more natural methods that we can do ourselves with a little discipline and hard work. I personally believe that if you are susceptible and vulnerable to mental health issues that it is a case of getting those negative thought patterns well controlled, that with the right lifestyle we can ensure that they lie dormant for long periods. What I believe is that when it comes to depression, it is something that is linked to your own mind, the type of person you are and your own experiences. Therefore I believe that, as is the case with ABI, that you aren’t really ever cured. Because of the type of person you (or we, I also suffer from issues with depression anxiety and anger) are and all that you have been through will be prone to spells of depression or moments of anxiety for the rest of your days. This is also the reason I believe there are other ways to deal with them aside from just throwing pills and medications at the problem in the hope that it goes away.

The Science

There are two key parts to how exercise can keep us healthy not just physically but improve our state of mind as well. The first is the release of endorphins and the second contributory factor is ensuring that our blood remains oxygenated and circulating well. I will do my best to explain the processes, as I understand them but I will say this now; I am no expert scientist.

What Are Endorphins?

nerves-346928_1280

Endorphins are a neurotransmitter (a chemical that continues the passage of signals from one neuron to the next) key to the central nervous system. They play an extremely important role in the nervous system as they can encourage or suppress the signaling of nearby neurons. They are also our brains response to certain stimulants, such as pain as well as emotional stimulation to the brain. Think of endorphins as the brains own drug and react mainly with the part of the brain responsible for blocking out pain and controlling our emotional state of mind.

While endorphins block pain and control our emotions, they also cause that great feeling of excitement and enjoyment from the things we are really passionate about, enjoy doing or are just something of a giddy thrill. So when we do an exercise that we are extremely passionate about, not only do endorphins block out or relieve us of issues such as pain but also emphasise the positive emotional state we are in when are enjoying our exercise. When you hear people talk about the “runners high” that is due to the rush of endorphins the runner is getting while their brain is active and their body is being pushed.

Oxygenated Blood

blood-75301_640

Now, I’m not going to get too caught up in this. I’ll keep it brief, as I’m not sure exactly what the correct scientific explanation would be (Here is a good article on oxygenation of the body and body detoxification – http://www.naturalnews.com/032096_oxygenation_body.html – ).

To keep it simple, the oxygen from the air we breathe in diffuses through membranes into our red blood cells, the cells designed to carry oxygen around the body. The red blood cells then carry this oxygen to the places where it is needed most in the body.

The best way to ensure a good supply of oxygen in the blood and that your organs (particularly the brain), muscles and nervous system stay oxygenated is to focus hard on breathing patterns with slow and steady breathing.

fitness-1327255_640

To help maintain both of these things, a steady supply of endorphins and a healthy supply of oxygen to the blood, those breathing patterns I spoke of earlier combined with regular aerobic exercise (hiking, running, cycling) or just breathing and stretching exercises such as yoga or tai-chi. The point is exercises.

I can guarantee that with the continued focus on breathing patterns and with regular daily exercise (it doesn’t have to be a big grand effort, just walking for half an hour a day) can have a really positive effect on the state of mind due to your body’s natural reaction, the release of endorphins; your body’s own natural high.

Confidence

One thing that exercise also provides that is a huge boost in the fight against depression is confidence in ourselves. During recovery and rehabilitation post-ABI I know that there are so many things that are foreign to us and that have changed, against our wishes. The situation escalated beyond our knowledge and control. However, when we find a particular type of exercise that we enjoy, we can implement an exercise regime that will enable us to set targets and, by achieving them, bring back an element of control.

abs-1145723_1280

Depression can cause issues such as a lack of appetite, or a tendency to over eat, both of which cause issues with weight. Exercise can help to counteract both of those things wether it is exercising to build up an appetite or exercising to burn off excess calories you have consumed. Exercise can be used merely to keep your body in balance and ensure that you stay in good condition and that your health doesn’t suffer. It can also be used to set yourself goals such as adding muscle definition, increasing targets such as distance run or weight lost or gained. With regards to exercise, it can work as a way to motivate ourselves and as a tangible, visual incentive because it shows that the effort we are going to is worth it.

NB. For more information on how exercise can act as a positive influence in life post-ABI check out the inspiring story of Nick Verron and how exercise changed his life after his brain injury. Follow the link to his blog: nickverron.com 

Brain Injury Recovery – Gradual Gains

The last two weeks I have focused on specific aspects of brain injury recovery and rehabilitation. My last two posts blog posts looking at Health and Independent Living and why they are significant to me and what you, me, all of us with ABI’s, need to consider when approaching those targets.

When I finished my last post on the importance of a good foundation of health, having the conditions we suffer from as a consequence of our injuries under control and as manageable as possible that a thought occurred to me. By putting these posts back to back, one following directly after the other, have I inadvertently sent a message out, that these targets and goals we all have, each individual to us depending on the extent of our injuries and our ambitions in life, should be addressed simultaneously.

This was a thought that I was suddenly worried by. The thing that I cannot stress enough is that each target we have on our list should be addressed slowly and patiently, worked towards with an attitude of gradual gains.

What Are Gradual Gains?

Gradual gains are a method of improving certain aspect of a person’s body. It is an old technique that has been used in sports fitness. It is a fairly simple premise of trying to make small improvements on certain aspects of the body that one knows to need improvement.

If I may give an example, say you are a cyclist trying to improve your fitness. The way to do this is not to do it in a short length of time with highly ambitious goals, saying to your self “I’m going to ride an extra thirty minutes on my bike today.” Something, which will potentially damage your muscles, cause fatigue and soreness, which will then takes a few days to recover from. The best way to obtain lasting improvement is to do the opposite, not to seek ambitious goals from the off. The final destination can be ambitious; in fact I think it should be, as I believe that we are all capable of achieving great things. For the cyclist though what should be the approach to gain long-term improvement is to say you are going to cycle for an extra two minutes and do that for a week. The following week he says I will do an extra three minutes, and do that for a week. The basic idea is to do a tiny but more each time for a week or so, where you don’t feel the difference in terms of the demands it places on you or the consequences when you’ve completed the task. I think the way that we approach our attempts at improvement should be through a series of small improvements over a long period of time.

How I used Gradual Gains In My Recovery (Physical)

This time, I will give an example that is more directly related to ABI patients and how this can work in our favour. When I left hospital and was discharged into my mum and dad’s care, I had been bed ridden for nearly 3 months. I was skin and bone, my muscle mass seemed to have evaporated and I could barely stand, let alone walk. Literally, as soon as I arrived home I was straight through the door and up to my bed where a room specifically for me with a TV and DVD player had been set up where I could sleep and eat and watch TV. That was predominantly what I did for the first few weeks of having arrived home. When I needed to go to the bathroom or have a shower, I would be escorted/supported to the bathroom by my dad, who would wait outside the bathroom until all I was all finished, then he would escort me back to my room.

After a month or so of this, having gained weight and put some muscle back on through the small amount of walking I had been doing pottering around the house, we decided to increase the amount of physical exercise I was doing. So now, each morning I would walk to the bottom of the garden and back and do the same again in the afternoon. Then as things such as balance, muscle mass and confidence improved we could start walking on the pavement up to the bus stop and back. So it continued. It took about six months until I was confident enough to walk to the bus stop, get the bus to town with my mum to have a cup of tea and then come back again.

How I Used Gradual Gains (Cognitive)

The technique that I have used and the example I gave regarded the improvement of my own physical condition. It must be stated though that the exercise can work in a cognitive sense as well (so long as you are rested enough post ABI).

Just as a quick example, if you find yourself getting to a point where you want to start reading again, start reading a simple book, large font, not hugely challenging or stimulating. Using that book start reading say, five pages a day (or another a manageable amount where you don’t feel as though you could sleep for twenty four hours after). Read five pages a day for two weeks. After those two weeks increase the amount of pages you are to read by one or two pages to six or seven pages a day, and do that for two weeks. Continue this process over a period of weeks. But the point is you can take your time with it and not over stimulate yourself. If you feel that the daily target is too much then decrease the amount you are attempting.

This did work for me but it took a long time. It was only when I went to university, around twelve to eighteen months after my ABI that I started this process. Reading had become a necessity, it had really started to become easier due to the fact that I was using this process and had started reading comics & graphic novels as well. So progress is slow with this method but I do believe that it prevents us from overworking ourselves. The fatigue we feel after we have done too much and gained excessive cognitive stimulation is the same as a cyclist that has sore mussels after a particularly long ride; he has tried too much, too fast and his body wasn’t ready.

So, What Is It That I’m Saying?

What I’m saying is, that if you take the two examples I gave, the cyclist and the ABI patient, they are two vastly different examples of people with different aims and ambitions. The point I am trying to make is more regarding the time span of which they intend to achieve their goals. I have said many times in my blog and I’m sure that countless doctors and consultants have told you that the recovery process from an ABI takes time. This was my main fear that was based on the last two posts; I didn’t want anyone reading this to feel as though I was encouraging them to take on too much at the same time. In fact, right now, I want to emphasize the opposite.

Take your time with all the goals you aim for and I would advise, based on my own experiences, to take on one challenge at a time, seeking small improvements over a long period. That way we stop ourselves becoming overwhelmed by fatigue or other issues that may crop up (my epilepsy is a good example there). We need to make sure one thing is secure and under our control before we move on to the next thing. ABI recovery is a step-by-step process, a marathon, not a sprint.

 

Socialisation & Engagement (Part 2)

The last post relating to Socialisation and Engagement was focusing upon the limitations, both cognitive and physical, that an Acquired Brain Injury places on us as patients. This post will focus on how maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be a positive thing in many ways but also being aware of some of the ways that, despite the fact that it is essential, the routine that is often required in maintaining that lifestyle, can hinder the activities a patient may want to do in terms of how they socialise with other people.

Maintaining A Healthy Lifestyle

One of the key parts of a recovery is to try and maintain a healthy lifestyle. When I say this, I am not suggesting a patient becomes a gym addict and starts eating only super foods (When I say maintain a healthy lifestyle, much of what I am talking about is, generally, basic common sense). In this section, I am going to cover the three most important aspects of maintaining a healthy lifestyle post-ABI: exercise, diet and sleep.

Exercise

Finding the right type of exercise to do post-ABI can be very tricky. It is something I still have problems with today. I have always had a passion for contact sport (football, rugby) and I have never really got on that well with the gym. I found that the people who attended gyms used to intimidate me ever so slightly. Their impressive fitness and muscular physiques certainly bring about insecurities when you start to compare your own (in my case) less than impressive physique. It can also be embarrassing as you try to learn to use the equipment. In the months after a brain injury, the memory is in a terrible state in terms of committing short-term memory into long-term memory (as I have mentioned in previous posts). It can be very embarrassing when you have to keep going back to the personal trainers and other people who work at the gym, to ask how to use the treadmill for what seems like the hundredth time.

Both of these obstacles may seem like problems you should just “get over” and that you should just get on with things. However, exercise in itself, needs to be something that you enjoy and something that is fun, otherwise how do you expect to motivate yourself to do it. The other aspect (feelings of inferiority or stupidity while in a fitness environment such as leisure centre or gym) can be common for people without ABI’s, but for people with brain injuries it is a very likely outcome. To overcome this, one way is to perhaps have someone who is more aware or familiar with your situation accompany you to the gym, to make sure you can manage until your confidence and memory is at a suitable level to be able to go on your own. In the last post, I mentioned the idea that most people arrange activities specifically for the fully abled, majority. Unfortunately, the same is true for venues as well. While most venues will have disabled access and some disabled facilities, places such as gyms are, again, meant for the fully abled majority. This again isn’t necessarily the fault of the venue; it is more the combination of the way society views head injuries (particularly the lack of education surrounding them) as well as the fact the majority of people are fully abled and can retain information effectively and are physically able to use the gym equipment.

However, a fun way (though I must admit living in the countryside and on the coast made this more enjoyable) to get the heart pumping was to go for a nice long walk. Not only does it get the heart rate going, and the oxygen moving round the body, but walking for longer than thirty minutes at a brisk pace starts to then consume fats that are stored around your body. So it may help you to drop a few pounds if you wanted to. As well as helping you shed any unwanted poundage, regular exercise will help with releasing endorphins, known for lifting the mood; making those erratic moods, bouts of depression or lethargy less frequent.

Rest & Sleep

Rest and sleep play a massive part towards how patients can manage our day-to-day lives. This section is relatively short compared to the other two, but Getting into a sleeping pattern of going to bed at similar times each evening, getting up at similar times each morning, sleeping right the way through with unbroken sleep, and even having a period set aside for napping during the day have been hugely beneficial.

For me, a lack of a regular sleep pattern can cause huge disruption in so many ways. I end up sleeping stupidly late (to the extent where I often end up missing lunch!). This then means that the times of my meals are thrown out of sync and that I end up eating at irregular times at the detriment to my health. I used to eat late at night, when you do this and then go to sleep after, it means that you do not work off the calories you have consumed and those calories end up getting stored as fat and you end up putting on weight (Not to mention, that disrupted sleep patterns often have a tendency to exacerbate my epilepsy and cause seizures).

After much messing around with my sleep pattern over a period of six years, I have only recently started to establish a sleeping pattern which allows me to get everything done that I want to in a day and does not seem like a chore.

Diet

Diet will be another important aspect of your daily life after being released from hospital after an ABI. When I came out of hospital, after my spell in the induced coma, I was 64 lb.’s lighter than when I went it. I’m sure many of you experienced similar things while in hospital. Losing that amount of weight in such a short period of time is not healthy, even in the slightest. When the human body is deprived of food for that long it goes in to starvation mode, meaning it lives off of the sugars and fats that are stored in our bodies for as long as possible while storing everything it possibly can from what it consumes (that includes, if the length of starvation exceeds a certain point, your body breaking down the protein in your own muscles to lives off).

It then takes a long time to come out of this process. Having lost much of our body sugars and fats, post ABI, when we are able to eat solid food again, I found that I was ravenous, nearly all the time. This is due to the fact that much of my excess fats that my body used to chew on when I got hungry weren’t there anymore. So after I came out of hospital, I over ate. Massively. I went from being approx. 11 stone when I left hospital to somewhere between 17/18 stone in the space of approximately six months.

The thing was, that the weight gain did not seem to be a gradual thing (as I remember it). I suddenly found myself in a position where I was hugely overweight. I hated the way I look and the way that it made me feel. If I could stress anything to anyone out there reading this, it would be; please monitor a patients diet and the amount they are eating as well as when they are eating. Sometimes it may not be that they are hungry, it could just be that they are lonely or bored. I know that was certainly the case for me at certain points: I ate because I couldn’t do anything else or I had nobody to do anything with. That weight gain had a devastating effect on my (here’s that word again) confidence. Due to how I looked and the negative thoughts this created, my self-esteem and confidence could not have been lower. Confidence and self-esteem have big parts to play in how we socialize, particularly on our desire to socialize and engage with people. This kind of thing can add to that depression I mentioned earlier. It is key to ensure that our loved ones not only reassure us but that we are assured of ourselves at the same time.

These things may seem relatively simple when you consider them in every day terms. However, what I will say is that trying to adhere to a routine for things that seem so mundane such as the time you go to bed or the time you eat your meals, because what would it matter if I were to do those things an hour later? The trouble is, and speaking from a young persons perspective here, we want to be able to do things without structure, without being told what to do, we want to break the rules. After all, isn’t that what being a young person is about? This is where the truth smacks us brain injury patients right between the eyes, we realize that we are not the same as other young people. Our lives won’t be the same ever again and maintaining these fundamental aspects to improve our health means that we will inevitably miss out on the social freedoms we feel we deserve, just as everyone else deserves those freedoms. I will clarify what I mean by social freedoms in the next post. Until then, follow me on Twitter for more news (@ABIblogger). Thanks and hope to hear from you soon.