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Regular exercise helps to increase the ‘feel good’ mood regulating chemicals in your body, releasing serotonin and endorphins. 

Exercise can have a big impact on your mood and wellbeing. Getting your body moving can improve sleep quality and protect your brain against stress. 

Riding the Rollercoaster

Dr Kevin Gilmartin talks about “the hyper vigilance biological rollercoaster” that many police employees go through on a daily basis. It is protective to be on alert, thinking quickly and looking out for a threat when you’re on the job. Your adrenalin is pumping, making you ready to respond to whatever happens. But this uses a lot of your physical and emotional energy. 

At the end of a workday you may go home, feel exhausted, and not want to move. It’s easy when you feel like this to tell yourself that you need a rest, and to do nothing. However, this low state is often not just normal physical tiredness. It is the rebound from your nervous system being alert and working hard when you’re on shift;  ‘What goes up must come down’. This is your nervous system going into an extreme ‘powered down’ state. 

Over time, this habit can set up a vicious cycle of alertness at work and feeling withdrawn and disengaged at home. This presents serious challenges:

  • your relationships may suffer when you come home and just switch off from everything
  • you may pull back from doing other activities that make you feel good, such as spending time with friends, playing sports or going out to things you enjoy
  • the cycle of hyper-alertness/power down raises blood sugar and increases the risk of heart attack, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain

When you are in a ‘powered down’ state, the last thing you want to do is get up and move. But this is exactly what you need to do to get your nervous system and your mind back in balance. 

Enjoyable physical activity (even if you’re not initially feeling like it) will increase your energy levels, rather than depleting them further. It’s one strategy to help you find a balance between being highly charged and completely shut down.

How much exercise should I be doing?

As a general rule, you should be doing about 30 minutes of exercise per day. If you need to lose weight, aim for 45-60 minutes every day.

According to the Australian Government Department of Health:

  • 2.5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity or 1.25 hours of vigorous intensity physical activity per week will help improve blood pressure, cholesterol and heart health, as well as muscle and bone strength
  • 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity or 2.5 hours of vigorous physical activity per week will help to prevent cancer and unhealthy weight gain

Finding the time for exercise

When life is busy, keeping fit and healthy can easily be neglected, particularly after a stressful day when you just want to go home and switch off. Planning ahead and committing to a specific activity at a set time makes it more likely that it will happen. It doesn’t have to involve costly gear or membership fees. 

Commit to exercise in a way that works for you. Here are some tips to make it a little easier:

Plan it. You might like to have a calendar on the fridge where you block out a set period of time throughout the week to go for a walk, run, swim, or whatever else you enjoy.
Partner up. You can involve another person, such as a jogging partner, or join a group fitness class. Being accountable to someone else can keep you motivated.
Use a pedometer (step counter). Keep track of how much exercise you are doing, and build motivation to move more.
Break up your workout. You don’t have to exercise all in one go. For example, you could do a ten-minute walk in the morning, and a 20-minute weight lifting or stretching session in the afternoon.
Focus on making exercise a habit. Get into the routine of exercising for short periods several times a week to make it a habit. Then transition into exercising more frequently and for longer periods of time. When you’re starting out, some movement is better than no movement at all.

Or consider these ideas for incidental exercise that you won’t even notice:

  • walk or cycle to work
  • leave your desk at lunchtime and get outside for a walk
  • take the stairs
  • organise walking meetings
  • catch up with friends for a walk, rather than a sit down chat
  • take five minute breaks from your desk to stretch