Beyond the comfort zone 

  • Pushing boundaries through physical fitness for better mental health 

Physical activity has immense potential to positively impact mental health. Just 10 minutes of brisk walking has been observed to increase alertness, positive moods, and energy. Categorised as “lifestyle modifications” in empirical studies, physical activity has been observed to improve cognitive function through elevated blood circulation to the brain, thereby lowering one’s reactivity to stress, and improving self-esteem. As we continue to fight a pandemic globally, understanding how adopting an active lifestyle can contribute to better mental health, has become crucial. 

To understand the role of physical fitness in mental health, Brunch spoke to Child Protection Force Director – Marketing and certified fitness instructor in zumba, dance fit, box fit, and strength and circuit training Mihiri Salpitikorala, who is also currently reading for her Group Fitness Instructor Certification awarded by the International Sports Science Association (ISSA). 

A journey of empowerment and healing 

Speaking of her journey, Mihiri said that she received her initial fitness instruction certifications about 10 years ago. “After my daughter was born, I started working out about six weeks post delivery, and I think it helped me overcome certain emotions that would otherwise have led me into postpartum depression.” She shared that because of her passion for fitness training and keeping herself fit, that period of post-delivery, which was challenging, went by rather fast. She further explained that as she grew older and hormonal changes came into play, she started to experience mood swings and low energy, but refused to give into it, and instead, focused on fitness, which she observed helped her greatly in emotion regulation as well as maintaining her physical wellbeing. 

“My sister, Milani Salpitikorala, is the founder of Child Protection Force, and I expressed to her that I would like to help abuse and trauma victims gain better control of their lives and experiences through physical fitness.” Mihiri added that she started taking part in the workshops and support sessions held by Child Protection Force for children and women, especially who were severely abused or traumatised, and were staying in safehouses. 

Elaborating further, Mihiri shared: “I am turning 39 this year, and this journey has given me purpose. It makes me happy and grateful to be able to help others empower themselves.” She added that currently she is reading a lot of research papers on the link between fitness and mental wellbeing, while enrolling in more certifications that will allow her to upgrade her skill set. 

“What I find challenging is that the relationship between mental health and physical fitness has not been empirically analysed adequately. As a result of this, the use of fitness in therapy and other methods of psychological treatment, is not yet widespread. If I have the opportunity, I would love to help a psychologist with their empirical studies to this end,” Mihiri shared. 

The relationship between psychology and physical fitness

Mihiri stated that through all of the research she has done, the connection between the release of endorphins and serotonin, and how that helps stabilise moods and make one feel better during working out has been proven, and she believes that therein lies the connection to mental wellbeing through physical fitness. 

“With trauma and abuse victims, I have learned that working out is a form of instilling self-discipline, goal setting, and pushing oneself out of their comfort zone. Because working out is strenuous, you are essentially managing a panic-anxiety situation in a healthy way by default,” she shared. Explaining further, she stated that while the mind comprehends that the working out itself is challenging, the actual process of working out offers a healthy coping mechanism, where the mind does not get overwhelmed by the challenge, but rather, deals with it and overcomes it. 

Mihiri shared that she generally starts off any session by communicating to the client that for the duration of the session, their focus has to be on bettering themselves and strengthening their body, and therefore, strengthening their mind. “I see that intrusive thoughts come in as one pushes themselves physically; they may get emotional, but, I also see them continue to push themselves through it. They are generally all smiles after a thorough workout session,” Mihiri shared, adding further that working out also generates a sense of accomplishment and mastery, which reinforces positive psychology. 

“What gets somebody into a better headspace is habitual and regular fitness that becomes a lifestyle and not just a one-off or short-term, acute fitness practice,” Mihiri stated, elaborating that this kind of habitual fitness cascades into all other aspects of one’s life such as healthy eating and sleeping habits, and paying attention to maintaining a healthy physique, which in turn empowers a person. “You become more self-aware and you practise self-care and love more. As you eat and sleep right, your stress, depression, or anxiety levels automatically lower itself,” she shared. 

Fitness and mental health in the pandemic 

“I have seen a significant increase in the number of people who have reached out to me since the pandemic started, asking for personal training sessions,” Mihiri said. She believes that the nature of this pandemic and the uncertainty that envelopes almost everyone at present, resembles a dark abyss, and that the more you continue to gaze into it, the more power it will have over you. 

“When you are going through something as impactful as this pandemic, it can be difficult to start working out, even if you want to. You would much rather stay in bed. I urge everyone to fight that thought and to seek help from an instructor who will help you get started.” Mihiri shared that one of the most important tips that she believes will transform lifestyles is getting in 20 minutes of cardio that will help elevate the heart rate, blood flow, and therefore, make an individual feel better. 

Discussing her take on coping with the pandemic through fitness, Mihiri shared that working out, eating healthy meals, and getting the recommended amount of sleep daily are integral in maintaining a healthy mindset during these challenging times. “When you exercise, your body temperature increases and your muscles loosen up, which is similar to being in a hot bath which reduces anxiety and increases adrenaline, providing a sense of elevated focus and euphoria. We just don’t look at it that way,” Mihiri stated. 

“Fitness does not have to be limited to one form, because that can quickly become boring. Instead, one can dance, jog around their garden, use meditative movement, martial arts, or any form of physical activity that appeals to them and will keep them looking forward to the next session,” she added. 

Mihiri explained that what we hear about the pandemic right now puts us in a situation we are not in control of. However, working out and proactively participating in your own wellbeing provides a sense of control which can be comforting and empowering during a time such as this one. She also stated that there are many fitness instructors providing services online at present, some even free of charge, to help those who may be experiencing psychological challenges, and that she urges everybody who needs such assistance to reach out for it. 

“Take one day at a time. This will pass. It has to pass and it will. Don’t lose hope no matter how bleak things may feel right now. Who knows? Maybe we will all come out of this pandemic both mentally and physically fit, and as wiser, more intelligent human beings.”

Facebook: Mihiri S. Korala

Instagram: @mihirikorala