We all know that exercise is good for us, helping to maintain our mental and physical health. Around this time of year, many people set new year’s resolutions promising themselves that they’ll start a punishing new fitness regime, often with the goal of losing weight. But this year, let’s think differently and be kind to ourselves. We caught up with health and fitness content editor, weightlifter and yoga therapy student Yanar Alkayat to get her advice on how to start exercising this January.January 04, 2021 3:40 pm
1. Work towards something you’ll be proud of
Yanar Alkayat is officially our exercise role model. A qualified level 3 Personal Trainer, yoga therapy student and weightlifter, she is the embodiment of the positive impact exercise can have in our lives.
And, given that around this time of year many of us are taking stock of our exercise regimes (or lack thereof), Yanar is a great person to give us advice on how to start exercising – and stick to it.
For Yanar, finding the right kind of exercise to suit her lifestyle and goals was a journey in itself. For many years, she was a long-distance runner, but it was a desire to improve her strength that led her to a different discipline altogether: olympic weightlifting.
‘It was a gradual change,’ she says. ‘I did my sixth and final marathon in July 2018 (we summitted Mount Snowden – it was amazing!) but I decided to hang up my marathon shoes after that to focus building strength and developing my skills in olympic lifting.
‘I got a coach to train one-to-one, committed to the training – which was intense at times – and six months later, in May 2019, I was doing my first competition.
‘Olympic lifting (not to be confused with powerlifting) is a technical sport as you need to move a heavy bar fast from ground to overhead, so it requires speed, agility, mobility and a lot of body awareness,’ she says. ‘I love the technical aspects of that. It becomes a mental challenge, not just physical, and I think that really helps when it comes to sticking at something.
‘What I can do with my body now is so exciting. It’s been the best transition ever.’ → See our plant-based protein products
2. Exercise to make you feel good
Countless studies have demonstrated the link between exercising regularly and improved mental health.
One review of the available scientific literature found that exercise can help alleviate symptoms of mild to moderate depression and anxiety and improve your self-image, social skills and cognitive function.(1)
Yanar has felt the positive effects of developing daily exercise routines herself. ‘Having daily training sessions and workouts gives me a mental focus and something to look forward to. They anchor my day,’ she explains.
‘Learning new skills – whether in fitness or not – has been shown to create new neural pathways in the brain, which means we can change old habits and behaviours,
‘I also love a challenge and I feel like once I’ve conquered one, it boosts my confidence to approach another. This is a massive boost to self-worth and self-esteem. It also develops strength of mind and has a positive ripple effect on the rest of life.’
3. Find an activity that appeals to you
So, you’ve decided you’d like to explore exercising to support your mental and physical health this year. But starting a completely new sport can feel a bit daunting.
How to start exercising if the thought of starting a new routine breaks us out in a cold sweat?
The answer could be in choosing an activity that appeals to you, rather than going for a type of exercise that you feel you ‘should’ be doing. It doesn’t matter what it is; if aerial yoga appeals to you more than jogging around your local park, go for it.
‘If you’re up for trying something completely new, make sure you’re learning the basics well to set good foundations for the future,’ Yanar advises.
‘Working with a professional will also help you avoid jumping in too quickly and putting yourself at risk of injury.
‘Find a club or beginner’s class and work with a teacher, coach or PT who focuses on the sport or skill you’re interested in.’
But there’s also good reasons for working out with friends, or in joining a community. ’Surrounding yourself with people who are into it makes it all the more enjoyable too, as everyone’s energy and enthusiasm rubs off on each other.’ → See our plant-based protein products
4. Keep going!
Once you’ve found your thing, experiment with how you can fit it consistently into your life. This could involve setting aside a few times per week for exercise, joining a regular class, or setting your own goals.
‘Knowing yourself – what you like, how you function best and what motivates you the most – can help in finding a routine and sticking to it,’ says Yanar. ‘Personally, I’ve found working towards a progression or goal keeps me locked in.
‘I love to see improvements and enjoy the mini-milestones along the way towards a bigger goal. It’s fun, motivating and continuously boosts my confidence. That’s why I encourage people, especially women, to work out with a purpose.’
"I love to see improvements and enjoy the mini-milestones along the way towards a bigger goal. It’s fun, motivating and continuously boosts my confidence."
5. Set healthy goals
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself when it comes to your goals. Keep them realistic and achievable while being challenging but still enjoyable. Noticing all the positive effects exercise is having in your life can be a big motivation in helping you stick to it.
It’s great to have goals, but be kind to yourself while setting them. If you can, try to focus on tangible targets such as gaining strength or improving flexibility. Include small goals along the way to give you a sense of achievement while you work towards your overall goal.
‘Start small!’ Says Yanar. ‘Pick one habit change at a time and work on that. Once you feel like you’ve incorporated it into your day or week, move onto the next habit change.
‘For example, if you’re trying to set a regular exercise routine, set aside the same time each day to help create the habit. You can even tag it to another activity you do daily so there’s an added cue. Having your kit prepped and laid out also helps so there’s minimal effort when you’re ready to go.
‘I usually have my coffee cup out and the coffee in the machine the night before, so I’m ready to go even when I’m bleary eyed and sleepy. All these little things help.’
If your goal is weight loss, consider working towards healthy-eating goals rather than cutting out food groups, which can have a negative impact on your health and relationship with food. Taking a positive and balanced approach can ultimately make you feel better and help to improve overall wellness.
‘Don’t forget creating habits takes a little time so when things don’t go right, it helps to view the process from a place of curiosity rather than self-criticism. That way you can learn from each step and hone it for next time.‘ → See our plant-based protein products
6. Exercise your mind, not just your body
Yanar is a big advocate of taking a holistic approach to exercise which looks after your physical and mental wellbeing. It’s important to figure out how to start exercising your mind as well as your body.
Alongside olympic weightlifting, Yanar practices yoga regularly. ‘Yoga is more than just a good stretch,’ she says. ‘It’s a space to rest and ground the body and mind so it gets into that all important parasympathetic state, which is how we can recover and recharge.’
In fact, the combination of weightlifting and yoga is surprisingly complementary. ‘Olympic lifting is taxing on the nervous system, so settling it through yoga and breath-work is key.
‘From a physiological perspective, yoga asana (postures) can also help to keep muscles relaxed and joints mobile, which can complement strength or cardio work.’
7. Keep calm and positive
The skills Yanar has learnt through her yoga practice are also transferable to other disciplines. ‘The stillness, reflection and quiet time I get from yoga and meditation is essential to counteract the busyness of my life and the intensity of my training,’ she explains.
‘I also use breath work to help prepare myself mentally before competitions. Weightlifting competitions can be very nerve-racking but it’s essential to stay calm and focused. I use the breath work to settle my nerves and create strong, positive visualisations.’
‘I’ve read a lot of sports performance books that describe how high-level athletes use breath-work and meditation too. After all, so much of sport is about mental focus, not just physical, so it makes sense.’
Exercise and movement has the potential to bring so much positivity to our lives and can be a real gift for our mental and physical health.
As we look forward to 2021 and all the possibilities it brings, we hope that you discover how to start exercising in a positive and fulfilling way, and that it brings you a sense of peace, achievement and strength.
For Yanar, finding the right kind of exercise has opened many doors and the future looks bright. Halfway through her two-year diploma in yoga therapy with the Minded Institute in London, she juggles her studies with work, training and seeing family and friends, but still has plenty of plans for the future.
‘The way we hold stress, anxiety and trauma in the body is fascinating, so I’m excited to develop the skills to work with people on the mind-body level,’ she says. ‘I’ll also be doing more personal training and coaching, as I would love to see more women work out with a purpose and build a better body for life.’
Follow Yanar on Instagram at @yanarfitness
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