On the surface, the connecting movement and mental health, as well as physical health, seems straight forward. You move your body and physiological and neurological changes occur that improve your overall wellness. Movement works to enhance mental health through the activation of neurotransmitters and chemicals that increase mood, productivity, and energy. The reason many attribute mental wellness to exercise is because movement is known to help activate and replenish neurotransmitters that help regulate stress.
Connections Between Movement and Mental Health
Decrease In Stress
Couple the decrease in stress with the release of chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins which are known to help regulate mood and decrease the stress hormone cortisol. We tend to see lowered levels of anxiety and depression post-exercise. The increased happiness and ability to regulate emotions can then be carried over into other daily life, work, and relationships.
Strengthening Behaviors Through Belief
Another benefit of movement is the strengthening of pathways between beliefs and behaviors. From the process goal of getting out the door to the big scary goal of completing your first race, we know that setting fitness goals and working to achieve them helps boost confidence, resilience, and motivation which can lead to higher levels of self-belief and feelings of achievement. We also know that movement can help you connect to your body and develop a greater awareness of your body and surroundings. This increased mindfulness has been shown to lead to greater levels of gratitude and satisfaction in life. We learn to stay present and let go of judgement.
Increase In Vitamin D
Engaging in movement outdoors can add an additional mental health boost. Higher Vitamin D levels from sunlight have been shown to help with depression and mood regulation. Being outdoors can also increase a sense of play through the adventure that comes with the varying movement and stimuli supplied by being outside. Research has found that play serves as a protective factor against depression while also increasing cognitive-reasoning and creativity.
When movement is combined with community, we can further enhance mental well-being by decreasing loneliness and increasing connection. Exercising with others can help build strong relationships through a communal sense of accomplishment and support. Moving our bodies with others can also help those that struggle with social anxiety connect to others through conversing without having to make direct eye contact and having natural chemicals released in their brain to decrease anxiety associated with social interactions.
I would be remiss in a discussion about movement and mental health to only present the positives and neglect the darker connection that is rarely posted to social media. While movement can have many positive impacts on mental wellness it can also negatively impact one’s mental health. It is common for exercise to become used in maladaptive ways that perpetuate underlying mental health struggles.
Movement in itself is not therapy, and cannot substitute working through mental health struggles with a professional. The most common way that movement is used in a harmful way is by using it as an avoidance strategy. It is being used to avoid dealing with difficult emotions and situations. This can be done through compulsively exercising to prevent or respond to uncomfortable feelings. Another way is to use compensatory exercise to control weight and body shape. Lastly, exercise dependence where one can exhibit signs of addiction to exercise.
When used in these ways movement compromises physiological and psychological well-being instead of increasing them. Signs that exercise has become unhealthy in your life include:
- Lack of enjoyment
- Never taking rest days
- Declining performance
- Lack of flexibility
- Inability to self-regulate emotions without it
Movement is great. I love a daily run. I finish a run and I feel better. It feels like an integral part of my mental health. However, as great as running is it will never be able to give me the benefits of counseling. Trust me I’ve tried. I’m telling you to not enjoy moving your body. You should use movement at times to help you cope with your emotions. I encourage you to engage in movement and for it to be a part of your holistic wellness. It can be a great time for thinking, addressing low-level emotional distress, engaging with community, and experiencing adventure. As great as movement is, it is not able to solve your mental health struggles on the level that they need to be addressed.
Remember to talk with friends, family, and professionals about your mental health. Use movement to help further your process in your mental health journey not as a means to escape it. Movement, coupled with therapy, can help you reach your athletic goals. Connecting movement and mental health can also help you become the person you want to be.