Did you know that moving your body is one of the best ways to support your mental health? We often think of exercise as a punishment or chore, but movement doesn’t ever have to feel punishing to reap the mental health rewards.
Often, exercise is associated with improving physical health or changing the way your body looks. It’s less common to hear of people exercising for the mental health benefits, but thankfully that seems to be shifting. Especially during the pandemic, people have discovered that making time to move regularly, even if it’s as simple as a walk around the block, can help lower stress levels.
Even minor movements, like adjusting your posture or deepening your breath, can have a noticeable effect on your stress level. For example, when you’re stressed, lots of times your muscles will tense up. If you’re working hard on something, you might notice that your shoulders are tensed up by your ears, or that your hands are clenched into fists. Consciously taking the time to loosen up your muscles can take you from feeling tense to more comfortable in seconds. The same is true for the breath. Changing the pace and depth of your breathing can help you regulate your fight or flight response, which is often activated during times of stress.
There may be any number of reasons why intense exercise is not appealing to people.
Not everyone is physically able to move the same way, whether that’s due to injuries, disabilities, chronic illness, or something else. Punishing exercise is often associated with diet culture or intentional weight loss, which can be triggering for folks in recovery from an eating disorder or who have struggled with disordered eating behaviors in the past. Some types of exercise require expensive equipment or lots of time to learn, which is not always accessible to everyone.
On the other hand, movement is often more accessible to people for a number of reasons.
Using the term “movement” instead of the word “exercise” can help remove the negative associations of exercise and the pressure to perform at a certain level. Movement is such a broad term that there’s something in there for everyone. Whether that’s walking, hiking, gardening, horseback riding, biking, swimming, dancing, gently stretching, yoga, skiing, or something else, anything that gets your body moving in any way can help support your mental health.
Are you wondering how movement supports mental health? Here are 7 ways:
Calms the nervous system
Movement can help your nervous system calm down when you’re feeling activated or triggered by something. When you’re in distress, your sympathetic nervous system (better known as “fight or flight”) becomes activated. Your levels of stress hormones increase, you may feel tense or short of breath, and overall you start to feel threatened. Moving your body is a way to calm down your sympathetic nervous system and get out of that fight or flight mentality.
Connects you with your inner child
When we’re young, we often move our bodies instinctively to express ourselves or manage our emotions. Think of a toddler who is excited about something – they literally jump for joy! It becomes harder and harder to listen to your body’s intuition when you’re feeling disconnected from it, though. As we get older, lots of stuff gets in the way of our childlike responses – cultural expectations, life experiences, insecurities – and it can be harder to listen to what your body is telling you it needs.
When you’re exhausted, everything feels ten times worse. A regular movement practice can help improve your sleep, which can lead to you feeling better overall. Moving your body can leave you feeling physically more tired, which can help you sleep more. The stress relieving powers of movement can also lead to better sleep, since stress can interfere with rest.
Gives you more energy
Increasing your heart rate can help you feel more energized. If you find yourself getting tired a lot in the afternoons, finding some ways to move may help you feel less fatigued. It’s also fun to move in certain ways! Dancing is one powerful way to move your body joyfully. You can listen to music that pumps you up (whatever that means for you) and dance and wiggle around in whatever way feels good to you. Don’t worry about what you look like, just focus on how it makes you feel.
Many people struggle with self-esteem issues, and making time for movement can help with those too! Think of the feeling you get when you do something kind for yourself. It feels good, right? A regular movement practice is a simple way to teach yourself that you’re worthy of care and it can give you a chance to keep a promise to yourself regularly. Over time, the feeling of achievement really builds up when you learn you can rely on yourself to treat yourself well.
Lets you express yourself without words
Sometimes it’s hard to articulate what you’re experiencing or what you want to say. We don’t always have the words for what we are feeling, but movement is a language all on its own. Humans have been expressing themselves through movement for thousands of years. Think of dances or rituals that can convey a lot of information without any words at all. There are even entire disciplines of therapy that focus on movement, like dance therapy or yoga therapy.
Helps you cope
When things get hard, it can be helpful to fall back on our routines to support us. When you make moving your body a regular part of your life, you give yourself another powerful coping skill for when you’re distressed. Movement gives you an outlet for your emotions while also supporting your mental health and lowering your stress levels.