Better physical health for better mental health
You can not expect to improve your psychological well-being in the long-term if you ignore the intricate connection between your body and your mind.The food you eat, how much quality sleep you get, and how you care for your body affect your psychological functioning.
Yet, many of us go on ignoring our bodies.
There is nothing wrong with occasionally forgetting to care for one’s body or losing the motivation for doing so. I wrote an article about ways to find motivations for self-care here.
That being said, do not make a habit of ignoring your body’s needs. Remember, you are in a relationship with your body: Treat it well and it will treat you well.
Because of the deep connection between the body and the mind, I will be discussing a few ways to improve your physical health in a series of articles.
I will focus on activities that can be done by most people and do not require special equipment. The goal is improved health and strength, but ultimately, better mental health. It is difficult to be at your best mentally when you are out of shape, weak, fatigued, or not in good health.
In this post, I discuss an isolation exercise (specifically, planks). Isolation exercises help isolate specific muscles—in contrast to most regular exercises, like jogging.
Plank is an isometric exercise. While in many exercises, like jogging, the length of muscles changes (contracts and expands), in isometric exercises, the length of muscles does not change. Why? Because the opposing forces are equal (like in a tug of war between equally matched teams).
Planks are very useful because they can be done anywhere, anytime, and by most people.
More importantly, doing planks helps with core strength. Your core consists of your abdomen, back, pelvis, hips, and buttocks. So, when your core strength improves, you experience better balance and posture. Indeed, performing plank exercises helps prevent a variety of injuries (e.g., falls) and strains. As this Harvard website suggests, pain in the back, knees, hips, and other areas is sometimes traced to a weak core.
How does doing planks help with mental health? Many activities you perform require strong core muscles. Lifting objects, walking, or simply getting up from a chair or sitting down require core strength. When your core muscles are weak, you may rely on only one group of muscles, such in your lower back (without help from other core muscles), and as a result experience problems like lower back pain. Experiencing pain and discomfort will affect your mood and make it difficult to think clearly. So, it is important to perform planks on a regular basis to strengthen your core and stay fit.
How to do a plank?
Though plank exercises are among the safest exercises you can do, please note they are not for everyone—women who are pregnant or people with certain injuries should avoid doing planks. Therefore, consult with your doctor before you begin exercising.
To do a prone plank (the variation side plank will not be discussed), begin with an initial position that resembles the initial position for doing a push-up. In other words, lying down on your stomach, push away (while your lower arms remain on the ground) and lift your upper body. Your knees and feet remain on the ground.
Think of yourself as the Sphinx. Your palms should be flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart. Make sure your elbows are beneath your shoulders.
Now, tuck your toes under and lift your knees. Try to form a straight line from your head and shoulders down to your knees and ankles. Keep your feet hip-width apart (or closer, if this is comfortable).
While you hold the position, focus your gaze down on the back of your hands. Do not arch or round your back, push your butt up or let your hips sink, or move your shoulders ahead or behind the elbows. Your body needs to be fairly parallel to the ground. See the picture above.
How long must you hold your plank? Start with a couple of sets of 20-30 seconds each. Do expect the plank to become challenging quickly (your body may shake and tire rapidly) but this should not be painful. Over time, you may be able to extend the duration of the plank to one minute or longer.
You do not get additional benefits from doing planks if you hold them longer than two minutes, according to Eric L’Italien, a physical therapist cited on the Harvard site mentioned earlier.
In case you were curious, the world record for abdominal plank was set in February 2020, by George Hood, who held the plank for over eight hours. Even more amazing is that Hood is 62 years old.