The Mental Health Benefits of Movement
One of the most under prescribed prescriptions in my field of counseling is movement. Movement is critical for mental health and yet so often not even suggested or talked about with our clients. That’s why I became certified as a personal trainer along with being a licensed professional counselor. I truly believe the two make a powerful combination. Movement is magic. It has special healing powers, especially for clients working through mental health situations.
What is movement? Movement is a word I like to use, but you can also use the words exercise or fitness. Use whatever word you connect “moving your body” with, because the ultimate key is that you MOVE your body.
Where We Have Been
It hasn’t helped our society that we’ve spent the last two years in a world wide pandemic. So many unhealthy things have taken place while we have been quarantined and in total lockdown. We have gained weight, more domestic abuse cases have been reported, more alcohol has been consumed, and teenage suicide has increased at an alarming, unacceptable rate. And if that is not enough, anxiety disorders are the number two underlying condition for the Covid-19 virus, which means, more anxiety and depression medications have been prescribed.
It doesn’t surprise me that these things have happened, given our current conditions, but there is a lot that we can do about it. I know many people were fearful of going to their local gym and being exposed to the virus from others, but the great thing is, we don’t even need a gym to move our body. We can move our body in the comfort of our home, or better yet, we can get outside and move our body in the fresh air. And by the way, we get bonus points if we are outside getting our always needed vitamin D from the sun.
Why Movement is Critical for Mental Health
When we are not feeling well emotionally, one of the last things we want to do is move our body, but once we do, it can make the biggest difference in how we feel. When we exercise, our body ignites the greatest concoction of our feel good juices through dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These chemicals are known as mood enhancers because they naturally enhance our sense of well being. And isn’t that what we all want? Our body has everything it needs to help us feel good from within, and also, no expensive prescriptions here, movement is free!
Movement is the Best Prescription for Mental Health
I know there are people who need to be on a medication to help with their depression, anxiety, or other issues that they may be having. For some, it is a matter of life and death and for others, it is a matter of waking up in the morning, being able to get out of bed, and function throughout their day. If this is you, let me encourage you to seek counseling while you are taking your medication. Medication always treats the symptoms only, while counseling will help you get to the root of what you are going through. And unless there is a medical reason, find a way to move your body.
Other Ways Movement Helps Us
We all know that just feeling good on any given day directly impacts our mental health. With that being said, here are some other healthy benefits of movement:
- Movement increases blood flow throughout our body, and also to our brain. Low blood flow has been linked to issues like stress, depression, anxiety, ADD, ADHD, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Stress levels decrease.
- Able to maintain normal blood pressure.
- Able to maintain normal sugar levels.
- Sleep improves.
- Energy increases.
- Better sex drive.
- Heart health improves.
- Brain health improves with better focus and memory.
- Better bowel movements, decreasing constipation.
- Weight can be lost or maintained.
- Overall mood is better.
What Kind of Movement is Beneficial for Mental Health
Any kind! What kind of movement do you enjoy? If you move your body doing something you enjoy, you have a better chance of sticking to it. Consistency is key. Cardio machines like the treadmill, elliptical, and rowing, running, dancing, tennis, swimming, even yoga, are all great options. A daily, brisk walk has amazing benefits if you just need to start somewhere, and no skill is needed.
A Mental Health Exercise You Can Try
I want to share a mental exercise that I often suggest to my clients, especially if they are experiencing anxiety or depression. Take a brisk walk outside for about 20-30 minutes and engage your five senses—sight, touch, smell, hear, and taste. As you are walking, notice how blue the sky is or maybe you notice the overcast and cloudy sky. If you pass by a tree, touch its trunk or leaf. Pick up a pinecone that has fallen to the ground. Smell the grass of the lawn being freshly mowed across the street from where you are walking. Listen to the birds chirping in the tree nearby. Or maybe the plane flying overhead. Taste might be the hardest to engage while you are walking. But maybe you are chewing gum while you are walking and you notice its peppermint flavor.
There are several reasons why this mental exercise may help you feel better:
- Engaging your senses helps you to focus on what is directly in front of you. This helps you to be “in the moment” and focus on the present. Not the past, not the future, but the present.
- Being out in nature has healing properties. Studies have shown that people who spend time in nature tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
- Walking helps ease physical pain and is a natural way to boost energy levels.
I hope these thoughts and suggestions have helped you. I believe that mental health and physical health are both incredibly important and often go hand and hand. We want to stay far away from a sedentary lifestyle if we want to be emotionally healthy and embrace a life that is filled with movement. Won’t you join me?
Debbie Whitehead is a licensed professional counselor (M.Ed, LPC), certified personal trainer (CPT), and certified nutrition coach. She owns a practice in Plano, Texas where she helps clients break free from trauma and live a beautiful life – mind, body, and soul.