By: Julie Bomengen
“Get some exercise!” — I know you hear it all the time, but bear with me because while most people understand that exercise is good for the body, fewer of us think about the connections between movement and mental health. We are going to dive into why movement is a pillar for mental health and how being active on a daily basis supports optimal brain health, as well as emotional and mental well-being.
As hunters and gatherers, our ancestors moved to survive. Every day for the majority of each day, they sprinted, jogged, climbed, carried, and jumped intermittently, walking an average of 6 miles and running ½ to 1 mile each day. Needless to say, our human bodies were designed to move! Fast forward to today and research reveals that the typical U.S. adult is sedentary for 60% of their life and sits for six to seven hours per day. Clearly, there is a mismatch between what we are designed to do and what we are doing, and this disconnect is having major implications for our physical health as well as our emotional and mental wellbeing.
So why does movement help mental health?
- Moving our bodies is the simplest way to improve mood due to the endorphins and mood-boosting chemicals, serotonin and dopamine, that are released when we are active and engaged in something that is pleasurable. When we engage in regular, consistent activity, our brain’s dopamine receptors are sensitized which enhances the reward and pleasure experience. Movement becomes more and more rewarding and beneficial over time. Keep at it!
- Symptoms of anxiety and depression have been found to decline when these same mood-boosting chemicals are released.
- Stress can be reduced when we are active due to the increase in concentration of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that can modulate the brain’s response to stress.
- Improved brainpower and memory enhancement results when we move our bodies because new brain cells are created through a process called neurogenesis. Workouts increase a brain protein called Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which promotes the survival of neurons, thereby facilitating such things as decision-making, higher levels of thinking. and learning processes.
- There’s something to be said for the feeling of confidence that comes with and after participating in something physical that challenges us. Even when it’s hard or doesn’t yield the desired effect right off, there is the opportunity to feel strong, capable, motivated, and proud of what you did or what you are in the process of doing. By moving your body in any way, you are saying that you matter and have value — that is something that translates into self-love and confidence. Keep at it!! Today, tomorrow, and the day after that — just keep moving.
- While you’re moving, move on out to the great outdoors! Research tells us that the extra Vitamin D that comes from the sunshine (even when it’s cloudy, we are getting some degree of Vitamin D), fresh air, and being among the healing elements of nature add to the overall mental health benefits of moving our bodies outside. Pick one outside activity to try out this week. How about a walk on the Rail-Trail? Also, much has been written about the idea of “nature deficit disorder” in our population, particularly among children. Get your kids outside moving with you – you’ll be shaping lifelong behaviors that will serve you in profound and deeply meaningful ways.
- Moving our bodies helps us relax more which, in turn, can support a healthy circadian rhythm which improves sleep, which in turn, makes us feel better, mentally and emotionally. See how all of this is inter-connected?! Check out my earlier post if you need a reminder of why sleep is also a pillar of mental health.
- Engaging in some form of physical movement on a regular basis helps improve productivity and creativity. Research is revealing that working for 45 minutes and then taking a 15 minute break and getting up and moving our bodies provides us with a burst of energy that improves productivity and brain functioning while also improving mood.
- Moving our bodies can be even more beneficial when we move with others as we often feel more inspired and supported, and less alone when we are engaging in an activity with a friend or joining a group of people who are working towards a common goal. As one idea, how about contacting the Green Mountain Club and joining in one of their scheduled walks/hikes? Bring a friend along or make a new friend in the process.
- People who are struggling with addictions of any kind benefit from having positive, healthy substitute behaviors to engage in. Our brains release dopamine – the reward chemical – when we are engaging in things that are pleasurable. Exercise can produce this pleasurable state, thereby offering the potential of being that substitute behavior for people who struggle with addiction. Also, movement reduces depressive symptoms and stress, which improves mood and has been shown to help diminish cravings for drugs and alcohol.
As you can see, physical movement is essential for positive mental health outcomes. Think about the activities you enjoyed as a kid – roller skating, swimming, dancing, hula hooping, playing basketball, rowing a boat, jumping rope, hiking through the woods, or walking along a stream. Find something you love and do it. Do it slowly at first, with a friend at times, alone with your thoughts at other times. Pick up the pace next time and feel your breath move through your body. Look around while you’re moving outside and find gratitude for the beauty of this community we live in. Breathe fully and deeply and find love and compassion for yourself, knowing that any movement or activity you engage in supports your body, your mind, and your emotional well-being.
Resources to further your education and information:
Julie Bomengen is a Vermont Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC) with 22 years of experience in the field of mental health. Julie is also a Nutritional Therapy Consultant (NTC), a certification of the Nutritional Therapy Association. She lives, works and plays in Lamoille County.