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Quarantine, exercise, the brain and caged lions!

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

I recently completed the required 15 day hotel quarantine post returning to Bangkok from a trip to see family in the UK, after 2 years without visiting. It is strange how we have grown accustomed to the fact that you have to do such a quarantine to be able to travel back into Thailand, less than 2 years ago we never could have imagined such a thing to ever be necessary!

It was a daunting thought, 14 nights shut in a hotel room with my husband and two children, the only opportunity to leave the room being for the 3 required covid tests (which involved a 200m walk along the corridor and an elevator down to the ground floor medical room). So, when planning the trip we thought carefully about where and what to book. One priority was to book somewhere with a balcony, fresh air and natural light being high on our list for surviving quarantine well. The ability to step outside for a few minutes of the day onto the balcony definitely added to our wellbeing, a breath of fresh air and sunlight really is a great natural pick me up, it helped fight our jet lag and our sense of confinement.

Secondly, we planned to do some exercise because exercise is as much for our minds as our bodies especially in times of stress. Movement was going to be key for all of us to keep our mood positive and our frame of mind healthy.

“Exercise is the equivalent to a low dose of antidepressants. I don’t think people recognise how exercise helps your mental health as much as your physical health” Julia Samual, Leading Psychotherapist and Sunday Times Bestselling author.

So, we hired a treadmill, which was great, but I also knew that I would need to motivate myself and the kids (who ordinarily would not be allowed on a treadmill, but these were extraordinary circumstances) to somehow get on the treadmill and use it every day. The quote of ‘A goal without a plan is just a wish.’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry came to mind. So, I printed out an old colouring image I had of a running shoe divided into 100 parts to colour, each one representing one KM. l then planned to complete the colouring marking off each km as I completed them, with the goal of achieving the 100km during the 2 weeks. That goal with a concrete image attached to it was enough to motivate me to keep going. Some days I managed 10km+ interval running with some loud music playing, other days it was only a slow 3km walk whilst reading or watching TV, but each day I could colour in a bit more of that shoe. On the last full day of quarantine I hit my goal of 100km. The kids also ended quarantine with pretty colourful pictures (even if not completed). This simple plan led to me fulfilling my goal of moving on the treadmill everyday. A reminder that we don’t have to over complicate things but we do need to have our goals clearly defined so we can plan for them and know what it will look like to have achieved our goals.

I had also packed my Pilates mat and some yoga props with me to use. The hardest part of any workout is showing up in the first place, I often convince myself that I only have to get onto my mat for 5 mins for it to be worth it (this is true whether in quarantine or just at home.) So my quarantine goal was simply to step onto my mat for five minutes of Pilates and Yoga daily. Setting the barrier to getting started so low makes it feel achievable and it makes it easier to honour without feeling like a failure or defeated before even starting. The thing is I often did more than 5 mins simply because it felt good. Moving naturally creates positive feedback loops within our bodies and so once you get started you are more inclined to carry on for a bit longer than 5 minutes. Listening to Wendy Suzuki, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at New York University, talk about exercise and it’s brain changing effects explains why this is. Exercise has immediate transitory effects on our brains, even one single workout will:

  1. Increase neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, all of which positively impact your mood immediately.

  2. Improve your ability to shift and focus attention, which will last for at least 2 hours post exercise.

  3. Improve reaction times.

Importantly a sustained exercise routine has an even more protective effect on the brain.

“Think of your brain as a muscle,” Wendy Suzuki says, and goes on to explain that: “The more you’re working out, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex gets. This is important because the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are the two areas that are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline in ageing.”

Regular exercise (30 minutes, 3-4x a week of aerobic exercise) increases the production of new brain cells in these areas improving our long term memory, and increasing our ability to focus and pay attention. This doesn't have to be in a fancy gym with the latest equipment, it can simply be taking the stairs rather than the elevator, a power walk around the neighbourhood, or dancing around a quarantine hotel room! The huge positive to this is that whilst exercise won’t cure or prevent neurodegenerative disease like dementia and alzheimers it will protect the brain so it takes longer for such diseases to have an effect.

Lastly, whilst in quarantine I also reflected on having read Caged Lion earlier this year which is a memoir about Joseph Pilates, written by John Howard Steel, who was both his friend and is the last Pilates student still alive taught by Joseph Pilates himself. John surmises in the book that a lot of Joseph Pilates' elusive history was actually in part Joseph deliberately withholding certain information about himself, deliberately allowing others to fill in the gaps how they saw fit. Which is how we generally came to believe Joseph Pilates developed his exercises primarily to help wounded soldiers recuperate but in truth, initially it was probably to keep himself fit whilst detained in a prison cell as a World War II prisoner. Hence, Pilates exercises are conveniently perfect to perform in a small area like a hotel room (which is actually much larger than a prison cell...I believe). What an inspiring thought if Pilates can create this legacy of what is now a world renown exercise system from a prison cell, what can we potentially achieve in the circumstances we find ourselves in today. No wonder Joseph Pilates is quoted saying “Every moment of our lives can be the beginnings of great things”.

Another thing which came to my mind from this memoir whilst in quarantine was John’s reflections of trips with Joe to New York Zoo. As these were also a source of movement inspiration for Joe, watching how the animals naturally stretch and work their bodies, especially the caged lions!

So our time in quarantine passed some inevitable highs and lows, but we found our own rhythm of things to do reading, playing games, working, exercising, eating and overall it was not as bad as we anticipated, possibly because we added daily movement into our routine which provided that unique elixir of feel good neurotransmitters providing us with some naturally high moments to balance out and ultimately overshadow those low moments. However, I am very pleased to now be sitting at home writing this, able to enjoy a glass of wine (no alcohol allowed in quarantine) and truly appreciating my new found freedom within the current lockdown in Bangkok!

A little glimpse of quarantine life routine...staying in a hotel with 200 other guests but seeing no one as no guest can step out of their room other than to deposit trash and collect food outside the room door!

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Lin De Leeuwerk
Lin De Leeuwerk
Aug 30, 2021

I’m glad we now share an exercise goal! How fun!

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