Stop letting your yesterday become your tomorrow.
I used to pirouette in the office. Working in business classified advertising and having daily deadlines, the stress levels of my team could rise noticeably, especially on Thursdays when all our advertisers wanted to appear in the bumper weekend edition. An occasional pirouette or two wasn’t to show off (I was a ballet dancer in a previous life). It was an amusing distraction, something to break the tension. Other ‘tricks’ might be standing on my toes, or jumping in the air and twiddling my feet – otherwise known as an entrechat. As the Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev, used to say when commissioning a new work, “Surprise me!”. The element of surprise is essential; a predictable intervention or action has no positive impact whatsoever.
Predictability is quite possibly the worst enemy of mental health and well-being. It only takes a few events to be repeated – “the boss/train is always late” or “there’s never anything I like in this shop/restaurant” – and we’ve set ourselves up for predictable disappointment. Throughout our lifetime, when we repeat the same behaviours and actions every day, our brains and bodies quickly adopt these habits because it saves so much effort when we run on autopilot. Then before we know it, routine has taken over and our lives are predictable. “We are mere bundles of habits”.Your yesterday becomes your tomorrow. “Your future is just a rerun of your past”. Unless you are living your dream life – and many of us are not - how depressing is that!
Immobility shrinks our physical and mental agility
What exacerbates this gloomy situation further is inactivity. It doesn’t seem to matter which book or article I pick up to read about happiness, well-being or neuroscience, the common thread for positive mental health is physical exercise. But the frequent response to that advice is “There’s no time.” There’s no time for anything beyond perhaps another cup of coffee or a quick ciggie outside (in the rain) – or so people habitually seem to think. Between predictability and lack of movement, we are in a state of stasis. “As people become immobile, they see less, hear less, and process less new information, and their brains begin to atrophy from the lack of stimulation”. And thus, we are stressed – or possibly even more stressed. Yet shifting out of this quagmire is easier than many believe.
60 seconds for well-being
Being mobile doesn’t mean running a marathon or doing 16 entrechats and it would be unwise to set such targets if you haven’t done any exercise for a while. Mindfulness yawns and stretches lasting just 60 seconds can literally help to wake you and your body up. Breathing deeply and elongating cramped muscles increase the blood and oxygen flows around the body. Instant refreshment! Allow yourself a mindfulness minute every hour or two during the day and notice how much more energy you have.
And if you think you don’t even have one minute to spare, set the timer on your phone or PC, and focus for 60 seconds on breathing slowly, or knee bends, or stretching your arms and legs. Then ask yourself if you feel refreshed or not. Chances are that contrary to expectations, you are more energised and ready to carry on with your work than before your minute break.
Repetition is useful for retraining and changing (bad) habits but once you feel comfortable about taking a mindfulness minute, don’t settle back into predictability. Surprise yourself! Instead of yawning and stretching, rub your hands vigorously or do a few shoulder rolls. Rise up on your toes a few times or stamp your feet. Which hand do you use to pick up something, turn on the tap, or brush your teeth? Try using the other hand.
Variation is a simple way to avoid the monotony of learning new behaviours. Not only can you choose to do different movements or exercises, you can vary those movements too. You can do ‘windmills’ with one arm or both, as slowly as you can or as fast. You can go forwards or backwards with your circles. Each variation prompts a different physical reaction. Slow movements require control; fast actions often need momentum to get up to speed. Taking your arms forwards, then up (and so on), opens the chest and rib cage. Going backwards first exercises your back muscles.
Combining actions promotes neural as well as physical agility. Dance is one method which is known to prevent or hinder the on-set of dementia. Learning and performing combinations of movements will exercise the whole body – the muscles of the brain as well as the arms, legs, back, neck, and so on. You don’t have to do pirouettes – unless you want to. Try Zumba, Square Dancing, Tango, Cha-cha-cha, children’s games – “Put your right foot in, your right foot out ...”, or any other dance form that appeals to you. As the actor Christopher Walken said, 'To get through life you have to do a bit of tap dancing.' Or an occasional pirouette. Or ....
How will you surprise yourself today?
 William James (1890) in Achor, Shawn (2010): The Happiness Advantage. UK: Virgin Books.  Dispenza, Dr Joseph (2017): Becoming Supernatural. California, New York, London, Sydney, New Delhi: Hay House.  Doidge, Dr Norman (2016): The Brain’s Way of Healing”. UK: Penguin Random House.  Financial Times on Facebook, 14 October 2021: “Christopher Walken: ‘I’ve played strange, villainous people but my life is contrary to that’. https://www.ft.com/content/a04ecfd5-241b-477f-bcfd-ba72ff5ca665