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The Benefits of Movement on Mental Health

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

It’s such a simple concept “move more and feel better” but what does that actually mean?

We've all heard that movement makes you feel better, and it does. When you're sore you stretch, when you're tired a walk can perk you up, and when you're feeling down a workout almost always leaves you feeling better than you did.

Why does it make us feel better though is the big question! It's easy to say to people who are feeling anxious, stressed, depressed or even hyperactive to go for a walk, run, the gym, do HIIT, or Yoga, and you'll feel better, well it’s true. Below I’ll explain some of the many reasons why moving your body in any way, and every way can boost mood, endurance, lifespan, happiness, and health, just to name a few.

- First and foremost exercise, no matter how much or how little, stimulates chemicals (neurotransmitters) like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals all affect focus, attention, memory and learning.

- Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and can help you think more clearly...consider how your mind wanders when you take time for a walk, especially in nature or somewhere you can feel relaxed. Or why when you are walking the solution to a problem will often appear out of nowhere, it’s because you are stimulating the brain.

- Exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. You can't go wrong with improving memory and this will be of even more benefit as you age. Keeping this part of the brain active and engaged can improve memory function at later stages of life.

- Exercise improves the connections between nerve cells in the brain. If you haven't heard the term "nerves that fire together, wire together" then take it to heart. The more positive pathways you can activate in your brain, the quicker and with more ease, the brain will respond to those thoughts. So if the thought of a workout stresses you, but once you are in the zone and loving yourself for it, those thoughts you have during the workout will strengthen over time and eventually could replace the thoughts of not wanting to initiate the exercise, as the body remembers the more positive feelings from it.

- It can also serve as a distraction and allow you to pull your thoughts away from whatever might be bothering you, or causing you negative thoughts. This in itself is a great mood enhancer as it allows the mind and body that little break from the stress pattern.

Now most of us out there know that there are days, many of them, when you don’t feel like working out, or you justify not having the time or energy, maybe your knee hurts and there is no way you could do anything with a sore knee. I get it, trust me, I still battle those excuses but far less often than I used to.

So if you find yourself having difficulty overcoming the mental obstacles in the face of better mental and physical health, then here are some tips that might help.

- You’re feeling tired, exhausted or even just lazy - Commit to a 10 min walk no matter what, exercise is an energizer so you will feel better after the walk, and chances are your mood will lift a bit too.

- You’re feeling pain, no matter what level - Often when we carry excess weight or have joint problems, even arthritis, the pain felt can be demotivating. As easy as it is to say work through it, that might not be safe to do. Consult a GP or Fitness Coach to see what types of exercises would best suit you. Swimming, stretching, rowing machines, or even just doing small increments of time while you build up your strength and stamina will be beneficial. For those with an injury from a previous workout, use your discretion and give yourself a chance to recover. Try low impact exercises like yoga, swimming, or weights depending on the nature of the injury. Always seek advice if you are unsure of your abilities or extent of the injury though!

- You’re feeling overwhelmed - When we are in a stressed or depressed state of mind the last thing we want is more to do. Again, I’ve been there and if it weren’t for my unconditional love towards my dogs I would have skipped hundreds of walks, as it stands I have been committed to 2, 30-40 min walks twice a day for approximately 6 years now. Sorry slightly off topic but sometimes it’s nice to know you really aren’t alone in any of this, I promise you that! So if you are struggling to see where you can fit in exercise of any sort, try to view it as “you time to feel good and reap the benefits”. It can be as simple as taking a 1-2 min walk around the office every hour, or spend 15-30 min of your lunch break walking, if you have time try out a gentle yoga class even. Weather permitting get off the bus a stop or two prior to work each day and spend that 15 min just with yourself enjoying fresh air and the added exercise. Or if you drive give yourself that extra few minutes to walk around the block and set your tone for the day ahead.

- Personal example of a hurdle I continually work to overcome: When I come home in the evenings, whether I am hungry or not, I tend to snack and too often it’s on a couple squares of chocolate or some mixed nuts, maybe a cookie if they are in the house (rarity). Not the worst snacks but not necessary either. So M-F I pretend I’m not done my day until after I’ve come home, loved the dogs, unpacked my things, immediately changed into my workout gear, and done a minimum of 15 min of HIIT and 20 min of Yoga. It took a couple weeks to really get committed but once I did I would look forward to it every day, and still do most days. I get the odd day or days where I just can’t be bothered (I will blame pms and am working on a solution) but I will still go for my morning and evening walks and in truth I walk 30 min on my lunch too, so I don’t beat myself up, and neither should you! I just don’t let myself quit ever, I always come back to it, even if I needed that little break.

The point is we all need to find what works for us! Some of us can do the gym 5 days a week, some run, some love yoga or swimming, dance, boxing, or walking. What is important is that you find what makes you happy when you are doing it, if you can include a friend or two even better, but doing it alone is great as well...think “dance like nobody's watching” and you’ll add a bit of fun love to the workout as well.

In summary, the endorphins released by exercise in any of its various forms, provide benefits by: reducing stress, relaxing muscles, improving concentration, boosting mood via serotonin and dopamine release, plus the added benefits of improved memory, potential weight loss, flexibility, and putting yourself in a better position to reduce many health risks and diseases that are associated with sedentary lifestyles.

Start small, go slow and just commit to you, because at the end of each day you are the only person that matters, since without a happy healthy you, how can you be there as your best for anyone else?

Now go move your body...and enjoy :)

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