Thanks Moms for joining us this month in celebrating Women’s Health and Fitness. For our last blog Huddle Up Moms is thrilled to feature our very own Dr. Julia Basso, Director of Research & Content Development and neuroscientist at Virginia Tech. We all have a unique relationship to our bodies and to movement - our own body stories. Dr. Basso will offer you a few tips and tricks, based on the field of health neuroscience, to bring joy to your movement routine.
Read below to learn more about this connection and relationship and hear her story!
DISCLOSURE: This information is not meant to be all-encompassing and should not replace seeking advice from your health care provider for specific questions, solutions, and concerns about your health! The purpose is to spark curiosity and gain some insight into your health.
I have been moving and shaking my whole life. I started dancing at the age of 4, fell out of dancing during early adolescence, and then returned to dance a few years later. During that time, I went through periods of obsessive exercise accompanied by unhealthy eating patterns. It wasn’t until college when I was working towards a BA in dance that I learned to love and appreciate my body and cultivate a healthy relationship with movement. Since I graduated in 2005, my movement practice has been a journey. As I pursued my career as a research scientist, I stopped dancing but started practicing yoga intensively. I got really into spin class and high-intensity interval training. Then I had 2 babies and slowly got back to movement after each of their births. All the meanwhile, I have suffered from chronic lower back pain, which I came to learn was a problematic sacroiliac joint. Today, I try to exercise every day. Why? Because it brings me joy and helps decrease my pain level. I use it simply for the immediate boost it gives me.
As a neuroscientist, I study the effects of exercise on the brain, and it really is amazing the multitude of ways in which moving your body can positively impact your brain and mental health. As a mom, I know it is hard to find time to exercise, but I must say that this effort is worth your time. Even if your kids are crawling all over you (or under you) while you are working out - keep going. Getting the motivation to workout can be a real challenge - but it is worth it- I promise.
The body-brain connection
Physical activity is not only good for our bodies but good for our brains. Even a single session of exercise can cause a range of biological changes that cause beneficial effects on the way we think and feel.
Below are just a few examples of how moving our bodies can cause physical changes to our brains.
New neurons: Exercise increases neurogenesis or the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a brain region that supports learning and memory. These new neurons get integrated into preexisting brain circuits and help to support our ability to learn and remember information. This is one of the reasons why exercise is so important as we age - to help support our memory!
More neurotransmitters: Exercise increases a range of neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The release of these neurotransmitters occurs all throughout the brain and helps to support the way we think and feel. Through exercise, we can boost levels of neurotransmitters in key brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex to help make us think clearly and feel happy.
Increased endogenous opioids: Exercise increases levels of other neuromodulators such as the endogenous opioids and endocannabinoids. These are some of the natural neurochemicals that give us that “feel-good” sensation and provide us with pain relief. New research shows that it is these neurochemicals that motivate us to exercise and keep us coming back for more.
Changes to the stress system: Every time we exercise, we get a release of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. As we exercise more, changes happen to the stress system (named the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) that causes us to be stress-resistant. When we encounter stress in our daily lives, we are more prepared to handle it.
These physiological changes that occur as a result of exercise lead to improvements in mood, decreased depression and anxiety, lower stress levels, increased concentration and focus, greater energy levels, and a better ability to learn and remember information. Exercise is like a magic pill to manifest more joy in your life.
At this point, you may be thinking: “I hate exercise; exercise has never been for me; I hurt when I exercise; or exercise makes me feel tired.” We hear you. That is why, we have provided some tips and tricks to help you build a sustainable exercise routine and one that brings you JOY.
Tips to bring joy to your movement regimen:
1. Write your own body story: Grab a journal and spend 10 minutes writing about your own experience with your body and with movement. You can see the beginning of this blog for a short example. This is a practice just for you, so write freely without judgment. Then read it. What did you learn? What types of movement bring joy to your life? When do you like to be still? Is there a barrier that is preventing you from moving? Try to identify movement activities that you find pleasurable.
2. Start small: If you are just starting your exercise routine, start small. Don’t feel like you have to exercise every day. Try small amounts of movement throughout the day. You can find various exercise routines on the internet that are about 10 minutes - so try these as a jump start to your exercise routine. As you gain strength and endurance, you can build up to 30 minutes or more of exercise per day.
3. Exercise with a friend: Making exercise a group activity can add a fun, social component to the activity. It can also be a way for you to bond with a friend or family member in a different way than through eating or drinking. Another way to make exercise social is by joining an exercise class or group. Check out your local running, bicycling, or hiking groups. In Covid times, many gyms are offering online classes through Zoom, which is a safe alternative to in-person classes.
4. Vary your exercise routine: When we do the same thing over and over again, we get bored. Vary your exercise routine. Try yoga, go hiking, go for a swim, take a dance class, do some high-intensity interval training, or lift weights. Movement opportunities are endless. If you are new to movement, you can try programs like Daily Burn (www.dailyburn.com) that offer you a variety of exercise options and new exercise classes every day at a low monthly cost.
5. Wear something you like: Exercising in old, worn-out clothes that you hate is not going to inspire you to get your fitness on. Instead, wear something you love, colors that make you happy, and fabrics that feel good on your skin. When I dance, I love to wear flowing fabrics that move with me and help me move in the ways I want. If you can, buy a new pair of sneakers or work out outfit to motivate you to exercise.
6. Listen to your favorite music: Listening to music can inspire us to move. As humans, we are entrained to rhythms. We tap our feet or bob our heads to the beat. Try playing your favorite music while you work out. Sounds that you love will get you moving and shaking on your own and you won't want to stop.
7. Think positively: Practice positive self-talk. Congratulate yourself for victories! Did you do an extra burpee today? Great job! When we treat ourselves kindly and appreciate our accomplishments, we feel better about ourselves and our exercise routines. Didn't get to exercise today? No problem, I’ll get my workout in tomorrow.
8. Keep going: Developing a habitual exercise routine takes time. You may not fall in love with exercise the first time you try it, but keep going. Your brain will learn to love it. As you gain more exercise experience and increase your fitness level, you will naturally want to keep coming back for more.
You can accomplish the goal of bringing joy to your life through movement. This goal is good for your body, your mind, and the others around you. You will be a better mom for taking the time to treat yourself right. Many days, you will find me working out in the living room with my baby crawling on my chest as I attempt to do a sit up. It’s hard, but I keep going. My kids even work out with me sometimes. I feel happy that I am teaching them healthy practices for their lifestyle as well as finding the time to bring joy to my life through movement. You can do it too!
Written by Julia C. Basso, PhD
Julia is a wearer of many hats. She is a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech working in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise as well as a teacher and practitioner of dance and yoga. She is also the proud mama of Juliette and Holden and a wife of a mad scientist. She is fascinated by the brain's capacity for plasticity and the body's ability to shape the brain. Her research centers around understanding how physical activity and mindfulness practices affect the brain functionally, physiologically, and morphologically. She understands both scientifically and personally that pregnancy and the postpartum period (and motherhood in general) are a time of significant change in a woman's life, and she is enthusiastic about being a part of Huddle Up Moms to help women successfully navigate their motherhood journeys.
You can learn more about Julia here.