Exercise and Mental Health
By Morgan Duperroir, LPC
“‘If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk,’ was Hippocrates’ advice. And if you are still in a bad mood: Go for another walk.” —Erling Kagge
Our mental health journey has many components, one of which is recognizing that we are created to be integrated beings.
In an article for Psychology Today, author Victoria Dunkley writes:
“…the goal is to move toward making the brain more whole. We want it to function as more than the sum of its parts—whatever those parts may be. The more integrated the brain is, the more resilient and capable it becomes.”
We also find evidence of the same truth in the early pages of the Bible:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5, emphasis added).
God knows that we are people with physical bodies and He cares about those needs just like He cares about the needs of our minds and souls. Because He cares about them, that means it’s a facet of our health that we need to pay attention to as well.
This truth comes into play when exploring the impacts that physical movement and exercise have on our mental health. Regular physical movement and exercise have the ability to lower cortisol levels and increase serotonin production. These adjustments help to reduce our stress levels and promote a stronger sense of well-being.
It’s amazing to think that God has given each human being an innate tool to attempt to regulate their own stress hormone levels by engaging in activities that involve movement. It is easy for people struggling with their mental health to get caught up in what they can’t do. As a counselor, I seek to empower my clients to remember that they still have tools like exercise and movement that can be utilized essentially anywhere.
And if you step up your exercise levels, the benefits continue as outlined in a 2006 article for the Primary Care Companion:
“Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression. These improvements in mood are proposed to be caused by exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain and by an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, on the physiologic reactivity to stress.”
But there is a good chance that you are no stranger to this evidence. You’ve heard that exercise can improve your mood, sleep habits, and maybe even help you lose weight. But sometimes, it’s just so hard to work that into your week. How can you make that happen?
Easy and Free Ways to Incorporate Exercise
The beautiful thing about physical movement is that there are many easy ways to incorporate exercise into your week that are free and customizable to your abilities, schedule, and health needs. You don’t need an expensive gym membership, online subscription, or fancy workout clothes to make this work. You just need your body and a willingness to make small adjustments until you are where you want to be in regards to your mental health.
Simple ways to include physical activity into your week:
- Ten-minute walk around your campus or office
- Brief desk yoga video
- Early morning walk with your dog or neighbor
A Hidden Benefit
Besides lowering stress levels and boosting your mood, regular exercise can also have a hidden benefit. Sometimes a quick walk can help you get perspective or clear your head to be able to tackle a thorny issue. It may also prove to enhance communication with a spouse or child because doing a physical activity that is not face to face may help open up conversation that was blocked before.
Exercise: it’s the gift that keeps on giving!
Exercise During a Pandemic
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably seen your exercise routines adjusted drastically since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Your regular outlets may have been disrupted, but perhaps you found new ways to stay active. Or perhaps you’ve experienced a change in health and have needed to make modifications. Now more than ever it’s important to find and keep that exercise outlet to manage stress levels and promote healthy body-mind connections.
I like to remind clients they don’t have to do activities they hate, but can instead pair things together they find enjoyable (being outdoors, music, organizing or cleaning etc)! Some forms of movement my clients have found helpful are listening to their favorite podcast while going for a walk or doing chores, planting a vegetable or flower garden, or trying out free yoga, barre, or HIIT videos on YouTube. If you find things you enjoy doing, you will be more likely to do it and stick with it even on the tough days.
Remember, the goal isn’t to robotically embrace an exercise regimen that never changes, but rather to keep the benefits of regular physical movement at the forefront of your mind. When you keep that vision in mind, you can feel free to explore new activities and make adjustments to your schedule and not feel guilty that your workouts don’t look like someone else’s or feel like how they used to. The goal is not perfection, but integration.
How will you choose to move your body this week?
If you feel like you would benefit from counseling or want to know more information about what to expect with a counseling session, please contact us today.
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