Exercise is simply a physical activity to support or improve health and fitness. There is an apparent correlation between exercise and physical health, but the benefits of exercise on mental health are equally as strong. I have seen the benefits of exercise on mental health in my own life since I was a child and even more so as I have purposely made exercise a part of my self-care routine.
“Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, emotional, and mental states.”
– Carol Welch
Exercising for survival
Isn’t it funny that you have to ask young children to stop moving sometimes? They love to move their bodies. Even in the womb, babies don’t have to be told to punch their arms and legs and turn upside down. Movement is engrained in us. I think about how when my children were young and they would have a bad day, a walk or time to play at the park never failed to reset their mood and lift their spirits.
When I was a child, exercise was one of the only ways I was able to care for myself in the midst of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. After facing abuse from my father, I would run out of my home, hop on my bike and ride as hard as I could, through the desert. I would pedal until my legs burned, my hands were sore from gripping the handlebars, and my breath had escaped me. Under the sweltry Arizona sun, tears poured down my face and my body and mind embraced every second of the release. The exertion from riding emptied me physically, but it also emptied me of the feelings I wanted so badly to release.
As time went on and the abuse continued I sometimes would use my neighbor’s pool to find relief. My body felt light and free in the water. Getting into the water was a way to cleanse my body, but ever more my mind. The rhythmic motion of swimming from one end of the pool to the other challenged my body and my limitations.
For the love of exercise
Developing habits aren’t always intentional. As a child, I depended on some form of exercise as a way to cope and lower my stress levels. I never thought about it, I just knew that it made me feel better, so I did it. The fascinating thing is that developing habits transform your conscious and unconscious thought.
By the time the abuse stopped and I had moved overseas to boarding school, exercise was already a tool I used to uplift my mood and help destress. I loved skiing, hiking, and anything that got my heart rate and adrenaline up.
After processing my childhood trauma in therapy and realizing the way that exercise helped support my mental health, I have found even greater joy in moving my body. I know that it’s a gift to have a healthy body to move and I don’t take it for granted. Because of that, I make time to incorporate exercise into my daily routine. It is for the benefit of my body, my mind and I jokingly say, for the safety of others!
The connection between exercise and mental health
The benefits of exercise on mental health are numerous. Exercise directly impacts mental health in physiological and psychological ways. Some psychological ways include reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and negative mood. Increased movement and fitness can improve overall body image, self-esteem, and confidence.
Physiologically, exercise can increase endorphin levels, and mitochondrial and neurotransmitter function. In addition to these two ways, exercise decreases overall inflammation and inflammatory diseases in the body which are connected to mental health outcomes.
Science points to the strong connection between mind and body, which led to the term “mind-body connection”. The connection goes both ways. The body can positively or negatively influence the mind just as the mind can positively or negatively influence the body.
Studies have shown that focusing on how your body feels when you exercise can help your body become “unstuck” and move out of the immobilizing stress response that is associated with PTSD and trauma. This has shown to be especially helpful with cross-movement that engages both arms and legs such as dancing, weight training, swimming, or walking. Outdoor exercise has also been shown to reduce symptoms of PTSD.
Exercises for the mind
As a child, I learned to love swimming, biking, and skiing as they were related to my surroundings. Over the years, I have been much more intentional with moving my body no matter what environment I am in. These have been some of my favorite forms of exercise that I have been able to do anywhere I go.
Walking – Walking will always be my favorite form of exercise. Walking is the most accessible form of exercise as it is free, gentle on the body, and doesn’t require any equipment. While a good pair of running shoes can be helpful support, I try to spend time grounding, which I practice by walking barefoot on the natural ground to realign my electrical energy by connecting to the earth. It has helped with decreasing inflammation and reduces anxiety and oxidative stress.
Walking is therapeutic alone and also with a friend or family. I have found that walking and talking have supported deep conversations and helped me to process difficult subjects in a way that I haven’t been able to otherwise.
Resistance Bands – I do a fair amount of traveling and I love that I can pack these resistance bands with me in my smallest bag. Resistance training is often thought of as only weights (which I do love), but these bands also provide resistance training in a versatile way. I use these for getting deeper stretches and also strengthening natural movements that I perform each day. The different band strengths make it easy to continue to challenge yourself. These bands are targeted for the booty, which has so many benefits for increasing overall lower body strength. The glute muscles are directly connected to the function of our hips, knees, and backs (all areas that many struggle with aging), so I like to take time to strengthen these powerhouse muscles.
Weight Lifting – Weight lifting is one, if not the best type of exercise for fat loss. With age, our metabolism slows making fat storage easier. Aside from fat storage, muscle loss also decreases with age if not actively building muscle. Adults who don’t consistently strength train, lose an average of 4-6 pounds per decade. Lack of muscle can lead to longer recovery from illness and injury and make daily chores and tasks more difficult. In addition to resistance bands, I really enjoy lifting free weights because there are endless exercises you can do. These weights are some of my favorites. They are adjustable so you can use them for a variety of muscle groups and are easy to store.
Exercise for health and healing
Exercise has been a consistent avenue for health and healing throughout my life. If you haven’t been exercising, start small and work your way up in intensity and time. Consistency is key to seeing and feeling the positive results of exercise, so stick to it! Getting a partner who can exercise with you can go a long way toward staying consistent, but if exercising alone is cathartic, then more power to you! The benefits of exercise on mental health are too good to pass on! Cheers to the health of your mind, body, and soul!