Running on rainbows
Exercise can help protect our mental health, but how can we tap into this mood medicine and stay on track? A human-sized, rainbow hamster wheel may provide some answers
New Year’s resolutions that fade into February, idle couch to 5km apps that sit on our smart phones and gym memberships that build bank debt, not muscles.
Many of us are all too familiar with the niggling ‘should’ when it comes to exercise.
But the public health message has been loud and clear for decades: exercising helps us live longer. More recently, scientists have shown that exercise can protect our mental health.
Despite this, we make excuses, delay and deliberate. Good intention is not always enough to maintain healthy levels of exercise.
With the pandemic changing the way we work, connect and play, many of us are finding that we are spending even more time sitting still. This sedentary lifestyle can impact our mental health. In turn, it may drain our motivation to exercise.
So, could exercise be the very mood medicine we need?
As a neuroscientist, I’ve seen the positive effects of exercise and play in boosting brain plasticity, mood and memory.
I’m part of a team that study how mice are protected from brain conditions resulting in memory loss, depression and anxiety when they live in playgrounds filled to the brim with ladders and ropes to climb, wheels to run on and materials to weave into intricate nests.
With this research in mind, I teamed up with renowned Japanese Australian interdisciplinary artist Hiromi Tango. Together we created Wheel, an art installation that explores how we can live actively in the world and stay mentally fit.
Just as a rainbow juxtaposed against a grey winter sky steals your attention, our rainbow Wheel is an eye-catching part of Science Gallery Melbourne’s exhibition MENTAL: Head Inside.
Wheel is shaped like a human-sized hamster wheel. Its standout features: it’s rainbow-coloured and enriched with sensors to measure activity.
Rainbows are rare, and our brains are attuned to attending to the rare. Hiromi is captivated by rainbows and has brought this into our work together.
Hiromi has been creating her signature sculpture and textile-based art in Australia and around the world for many years. She is known for experimenting with vibrant colour, lighting and details that bring the invisible connections we have with nature, others and ourselves to life.
Like mice, people interact with Wheel by running or walking inside. A handwheel accompanies the hamster wheel – so people can choose to work out using their hands or their feet.
Participants can drive the wheel fast or as slow as they like. Computer scientist Dr Tilman Dingler helped us attach odometers to both wheels. They track how many kilometres people travel, their top speed or time spent exercising.
There’s also a livestream of participants’ hands or feet. People on the sidelines can watch online and cheer others on as they exercise through a ‘like’ button.
We’re eager to find out whether cheering makes us more likely to stay active on the Wheel.
The hamster wheel has been frequently used as an analogy of being stuck in a cycle. We have flipped this reasoning. Instead, Wheel explores what key ingredients help us to stay on the wheel and commit to incorporating exercise into our daily routine.
In addition to exploring the role of social reward in exercise commitment, Hiromi and I agree that when exercise is fun it’s most certainly easier to commit to.
The laughter that accompanies each kilometre travelled by people using Wheel is infectious.
We hope that Wheel helps to illustrate that exercise doesn’t have to be a gruelling task - we can all find different and novel ways to exercise that are joyful.
So, if exercise is mood medicine, what dose do we need?
Exercise looks different for everybody because it’s about what feels good for our body. Studies have shown that even if you exercise, regardless of what it looks like for you, you can undo this good work by sitting still for many hours a day.
Is the key in creatively boosting our incidental exercise? Taking the stairs instead of the lift? Running on a human-sized hamster wheel?
We know that exercising regularly impacts on our mental health – but maintaining this isn’t always easy. Wheel may shed light on the ingredients that may help us to maintain regular activity over time, to build a brain reserve that protects us throughout life.
That’s really the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when it comes to our health.
Part exhibition, part experiment, MENTAL is a welcoming place to confront societal bias and stereotypes about mental health. It features 21 works from local and international artists and research collaborators that explore different ways of being, surviving and connecting to each other. Opening in July 2021, book your free tickets now.
Banner: Wheel by Hiromi Tango and Dr Emma Burrows: Installation view, MENTAL: Head Inside, Science Gallery Melbourne/Picture: Alan Weedon