As we emerge from the depths of lockdown and soon to be all restrictive measures, the population is at odds - with 37% looking forward to returning to normal life, 36% happy to stay at home, and the remaining 27% indifferent either way. Since the beginning, there has been perversive ambivalence surrounding mental and physical wellbeing beset by the pandemic - ‘We are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat.’ This polarity of opinions is likely to continue - with many of us returning to work unscathed, while others begin to confront the debris of lost business and loved ones. It is now our collective responsibility to encourage the well-being of friends, families, and colleagues.
Although usually a contentious subject under the spotlight of mental health - I think we can all agree on the positive amenities made possible by technology over the past year. The advancements of globalised technology have given us a window to stay connected to the wider world from the comfort of our homes while facilitating our transition back into normality. But like all great power, comes great responsibility - overindulging in the hedonistic side of technology can and does have its pitfalls. There has loomed the imperative to not become overly reliant on our devices - and an attempt to strike a healthy balance between work and play can sometimes get lost. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can utilise this mass integration of technology and use it to our advantage.
Digitalised fitness and wellbeing platforms have quickly been advancing over the past few years, giving us further insight into our health and tips on ways we can look after ourselves better. Whether you’re wanting to optimise your quality of sleep, track your heart rate or even measure your brainwaves - there’s probably an app for it.
How exercise changes the brain
It’s common knowledge what regular exercise can do for us physically - from gaining a strong physique to protecting us from chronic diseases such as certain cancers and diabetes. These benefits are usually what drive people to start. But what tends to make people stick at it is the feeling it gives them.
Regular exercise can help you achieve an immense sense of wellbeing, even preventing or delay the onset of various mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
The cognitive structures of our brains are not fixed but are instead constantly evolving throughout an individual’s life - adapted through certain experiences and habits. A plethora of evidence shows that regular exercise promotes the phenomena known as neuroplasticity - the ability to rewire the networks in the brain to adjust and become more resilient to different environments. This is due to the increased level of blood flow to the brain which triggers biochemical changes, spurring the production of new connections between neurons. Those who participate in regular moderate-intense exercise encourage this pattern of behavior, showing signs of markedly improved learning and memory.
Technology for exercise
Fitness technology can now provide us with in-depth data on our overall health, fundamentally changing the way people stay active. Tracking your fitness can be highly motivating and has changed the consumer values of many.
Fitness trackers are commonly worn by those interested in measuring and improving their health. The Garmin Vivoactive 4 is a hybrid between a smartwatch and fitness tracker, and the latest model in the Vivoactive series - also voted the best fitness tracker for 2021. It takes a holistic approach to deliver both form and function, with a built-in GSP tracker, comprehensive health stats, and built-in music storage. It enables you to track your body’s energy levels throughout the day to help advise optimal times for exercise and rest. It also has the ability to determine how well your body absorbs oxygen if you’re stressed (promoting a reminder to chill) and also act as a menstrual cycle/pregnancy tracker for woman.
Zwift became highly popular at the peak of the pandemic, allowing cyclists to continue riding indoors throughout periods of isolation. It is designed to be linked to turbo trainers as an interactive video game and allows you to ride with other cyclists in a virtual environment. This adds a more competitive element than conventional indoor cycling which can help to keep you more engaged and thus exercise for longer. There is also an option for specific training classes hosted by professional coaches, either in group or solo mode. Zwift offers an alternative to outdoor cycling, ideal for omitting unwarranted weather of wind and rain.
Listening to music in sync with your exercise is shown to have physical and psychological effects which improve the quality of your workout by increasing your stamina. Jaybird’s sports-focused wireless headphones provide a clear and stable wireless connection when combined with an EQ app, which should make for a hassle-free, personalized listening experience. They're also completely waterproof and sweat-proof, offering an impressive 32 hours of total use with the charging case, or six hours per charge.
How meditation changes the brain
''Whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. What is soft is strong.''
Studies conducted by Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar found that if practiced consistently and regularly, meditation also has the ability to restructure the brain - shrinking the amygdala (primal region) while thickening key areas of the pre-cortex that help to control attention and emotions. The functional cognition between these regions also changes, with the transition of information between the amygdala, the emotional area, and the rest of the brain becoming weaker while the areas associated with thinking and concentration grow stronger.
The amygdala (amygdaloid), located deep in the brain’s temporal lobe is responsible for our emotional learning, memory systems, decision making, and pleasure/fear responses. Commonly referred to as the ‘emotional’ part of our brains, it receives information faster than our ‘thinking’ brain and is predominantly dictated by our unconscious, therefore something we have no immediate control over. An overly reactive amygdala can lead to emotional distress, with symptoms such as anxiety, impulsive and aggressive behavior.
The studies conducted by Sara Lazar observes:
“Our results suggest that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain. We also found evidence that meditation may slow down the age-related atrophy of certain areas of the brain. The more stress reduction people reported, the smaller the amygdala got.”
Technology for meditation
The simplicity of meditation can sometimes be interpreted as trivial and unproductive - but when practiced regularly can in fact harvest profoundly positive results.
Often when people begin to mediate they give up too early for various reasons; ‘I don’t know I’m doing it right’ ‘I don’t have enough time’ or simply not enough incentive from a lack of quantifiable results.
The Muse headband is a ‘wearable meditation device’ used to measure brain activity using EEG sensors, which then converts the EEG signals into audio feedback straight to your mobile app. It is designed to help guide you through the guesswork, using biosensors to detect different brain wave activity. Brain waves are oscillating electrical voltages in the brain measuring just a few millionths of a volt. The five detected by the muse headband are:
Gamma - Concentration
Beta - Anxiety dominant, active, external attention, relax
Alpha - Very relaxed, passive attention
Theta - Deeply relaxed, inward-focused
Delta - Sleep
If optimising your meditation, mindfulness or sleep is something you struggle to measure the effects of - the muse headband is a relatively cheap option to help ‘make the intangible, tangible.’
Meditation apps can be a helpful guide for people just getting started. Headspace is a digital health company affording guided meditation training and mindfulness for its users. This unassuming app, used by athletes such as Tom Daley and the once skeptical but now converted Bill Gates, holds a revenue of over $100 million. It was founded by Andy Puddicombe, who in his early twenties gave up his Sports science degree to become a Buddhist monk. It consists of guided meditations, animations, articles, and videos central to Andy’s goal of teaching meditation and mindfulness to as many people as possible.
If you’re just looking for something free to try, smiling mind is a non-profit app that aims to promote sound mental health through guided meditation programs. Though it’s accessible to everyone, its main focus is on younger people - ‘1 in 4 secondary students and 1 in 7 primary school students experience a mental illness and 75% of all mental illness has its onset before the age of 24.’ Smiling mind aims to equip young people with the foundational skills that positively impact the way young people feel about themselves, how they think, learn, and relate to others.