Exercise can be fun…..no, really!

It never fails to amaze me watching the children I teach just how much energy they have! They run around like maniacs before we start our classes then they do an hour with us where we run around warming up, doing our forms and playing games. Afterwards some even head to more activities; tennis lessons, dance classes, football the list goes on and on!

I vaguely remember being able to maintain that high level of energy. Now my exercise consists of weight lifting (carrying Beth around counts right?), kung fu classes, yoga, pilates and Tai Chi (not really known for their high cardiovascular effect) and my (almost non-existent) marathon training. Until I started working for Cambridge Kung Fu I never really analysed my attitude to exercise, I proudly viewed myself as one of the ‘sane’ people. 6am for a run? No thank you! Killing yourself on gym machines and continuous cardio and strength classes? Well I’ll dabble every now and then but heaven forbid it should interfere with…well, let’s be honest, anything else that didn’t involve getting sweaty, disgusting and tired in a room full of 20 people with an endlessly energetic perky instructor!

With this job has come the realisation that the most important factor for me when it comes to exercise, is fun. It seems like such an obvious factor yet it is one that is constantly  overlooked in people’s efforts to combat the indulgent coffees (guilty), cakes (also guilty), chocolate bars (yup) and the desire to get our children into the best habits possible to avoid becoming part of the obesity epidemic (I’m pretty sure my future self is guilty).

So where has this attitude of mine come from? Funnily enough, childhood. I am a forces brat and having opted out of going to boarding school ended up changing schools every 3-4 years. I suffered quite badly from being bullied and so withdrew from anything that would draw quite a lot of attention to myself, this included getting involved in school sports besides the required P.E lessons. The only exercise I truly enjoyed was (and still is along with my Tai Chi) dancing, the great thing being it didn’t feel like exercise. It was fun, it was something I could laugh at while I was doing it and it constantly changed. The advantage being the better I got the less time I had for other sports at school. It’s now gotten to the point that if I can’t laugh while I’m doing the exercise, or if I’m out of breath cackle maniacally in my head, then I can’t stick with it long-term.

The commonly accepted explanation for why exercise makes people feel good is “endorphins”.  Research has shown that endogenous opioids (“peptides that have biochemical properties similar to exogenous opiates such as heroin and morphine”*, otherwise known as endorphins) are increased by exercising, this increase also coincided with an improvement in mood after acute exercise. However studies that then blocked the opioid receptors showed that this did not stop the mood improvement after exercise from occurring. So endorphins on their own can not fully account for the “feel good” factor when we exercise, what else can? There is also a psychological aspect to exercise, who hasn’t vowed that this year will be different and started a whole new exercise regime only to slowly drop it over the next few months (I know I have!)? It takes dedication and determination to stick with something new to the point of it becoming a habit, especially when it’s not always pleasureable (helloooooo red puffy face, breathlessness, sweat and aches and pains). The level of intensity at which you exercise can have an effect on your mood levels, low intensity can improve mood and high intensity can actually increase negative mood states**. However it has also been shown to have no effect at all, this could be attributed to the fact that we all have our own comfort zones when it comes to exercise. Some people take pleasure from high intensity levels of exercise (like my nutter of a Spartan neighbour!), and others find this highly uncomfortable and prefer lower levels of intensity (like yours truly). It seems that people experience more pleasure from exercise when they are allowed to choose the intensity each time, some days you feel capable of tackling a 5 mile run, other days you can barely get down the road.

In order to achieve a “pleasureable state of consciousness” (Yeung) during exercise you need to enter into the flow. This is achieved by challenging yourself at “the very edge of your skill level”***, too hard and you become frustrated and angry, too easy and you become bored. The effects are the same however, you soon stop. Jane McGonigal tells us that being in a state of flow is so engaging that even if we do stumble while attempting the challenge we immediately want to get up and try again. We are “optimistically engaged” (McGonigall) within the task and so are more inclined to think positively about our abilities within it rather than negatively.

So combining a state of flow and the release of endorphins can then create a state of mind which helps us to maintain a new exercise regime and to stick with something we find challenging because it is fun for us. This is the type of environment we try to create within our classes every week, if it’s not fun what’s the point? But combining this state of mind with laughter makes the effect even more powerful, did you know that the act of laughing releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine into our brains? Dopamine is associated with pleasure and reward, by laughing while attempting and succeeding at a task you are setting yourself up to be more prepared for any increased effort required to succeed in the future (however should you stumble remember kung fu means success achieved through hard work and that this can apply to anything, not just martial arts).

This need for laughter and fun is what drives us here at Cambridge Kung Fu when we teach or talk about developing the children’s’ classes. The classes were already amazing when I got hired at Cambridge Kung Fu, my job (and my desire) is to support our Programme Coordinators to take them from amazing to spectacular! You may have noticed, if your child does classes with us, that we play quite a few games in the classes, even with the older children. Well why not? Yes they are games rather than kung fu drills designed to discipline and strengthen, but guess what. Our games help to encourage the same values as these drills. If you watch closely all of the games we play require some level of teamwork (dragon’s lair, stealth, Eskimo island), body control and awareness (skyscraper, terracotta warriors), a degree of physical fitness(Indiana Jones and the temple of cones, ladder legs, pad tag, circle of doom) and some self-defence (defend the base, el presidente, shaolin crossing). The best thing about these is that the children are having too much fun to realise they are actually being taught these things.

Our main motto is: “It’s about who you are, not what you’ve got that matters.” Children are still discovering who they are, why should we control and dominate how they see themselves by making them do endless drills and exercises? Why not give them an opportunity to shine in the ever-changing environment that is a game? Some of the best suggestions I have had for game alterations and class activities have come from the children I teach. Our main motto may be focussing on our own integral resources, but the one I always try to keep in mind is that children are not little adults, so why should we make them train like one?

* Lessons in Exercise Neurobiology: The Case of Endorphins Rod K. Dishman, Patrick J. O’Connor

** The Acute Effects of Exercise on Mood State Robert R. Yeung

***Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World Jane McGonigall

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