By Natalie David, MSW Intern
Gentle reminder before reading: while moving your body can impact your mental health, it’s also healthy to rest and relax on days that you don’t want to move your body. Establishing a healthy relationship with our bodies, despite whether we exercise or not, is impactful to our mental health.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word exercise I picture individuals spending hours in a gym lifting weights or running miles outside at a sub nine-minute pace. I imagine people drinking protein shakes and completing the latest “two-week ab” challenge in preparation for summer. Unfortunately, we live in a society that shames people into working out; because of this, many people have a negative association with the word exercise. I’ve recently learned that working out and moving your body can be as simple as that; you can just move your body. Exercise doesn’t have to be intimidating, and you don’t have to overexert yourself to benefit from movement.
So, how does moving your body promote mental health? As it is widely known, exercise can improve our cardiovascular health as well as our overall physical health. A lesser known fact, moving your body can have a positive impact on your mental health as well. Research has shown that regular physical activity helps to relieve stress, improve sleep, increase energy and improve mood; movement has also shown to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety (Sharma, Madaan & Petty, 2006). It is hypothesized that these improvements in mood are caused by an increase in blood circulation to the brain during exercise and an impact on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, on the physiologic response to stress (Guszkowska, 2004). This physiologic response is likely due to the interaction between the HPA axis and several regions of the brain, including the limbic system, which controls mood and motivation; the amygdala, which produces fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which has a major role in memory as well as mood and motivation (Sharma, Madaan & Petty, 2006).
Other explanations for the benefits of physical activity on mental health include distraction, mindfulness and the normalization of anxiety symptoms. For example, moving your body can also serve as a distraction to your negative thoughts or worries, allowing time to reassess your thought process and adjust your perspective where needed. By engaging in movement you can stop the flow of these thoughts that may be feeding your anxiety or depression. Also, exercising can act as a healthy exposure to the physical symptoms of a panic attack, such as an increased heart rate and sweating. This exposure can help normalize these physical symptoms that were previously perceived as danger during a panic attack.
Moving your body can be defined as what feels best to you. If you don’t have time for an hour workout, you can start smaller with 10 or 15-minutes of movement; even a little bit of movement can be valuable. Some of my favorite ways to move my body include: taking a walk with my dogs in the evening, deep cleaning my apartment, dancing to my favorite songs or stretching while watching a show on Netflix. No matter how active you are currently, you can learn to utilize moving your body as a tool to promote your mental health and overall well-being. Some tips to get you started include:
1. Start small. Like I previously stated, you don’t need to engage in a long, strenuous exercise to move your body. You can enjoy a 10 minute walk outside on your lunch break, jam out in your car to your favorite song, take the stairs instead of the elevator or park farther away from the grocery store. Set achievable goals then you can build from there.
2. Find activities that you enjoy. Any type of movement is healthful, so allow yourself to get creative! If you haven’t engaged in physical activity much before, try a few different things. Turn on your favorite song and make up your own dance routine, go for a swim at a local pool or practice yoga poses by following a Youtube video. If you’re enjoying what you’re doing, you’re more likely to continue doing it.
3. Be kind to yourself. Self-compassion is vital to success, especially when setting out to complete a new endeavour. Be mindful of self-criticism if you decide to give your body a rest or you aren’t able to complete an exercise. Things will get easier with time and practice. Give yourself grace, and allow yourself to make mistakes during this experience.
Engaging in physical activity still may seem scary or intimidating, and that’s okay. Do what makes you feel good, and remember any movement can be beneficial for your mental health. You’ve got this.
Guszkowska M. (2004). Wpływ ćwiczeń fizycznych na poziom leku i depresji oraz stany nastroju [Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood]. Psychiatria polska, 38(4), 611–620.
Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106.