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Movement for Mental Health

Updated: Sep 15, 2022

How exercise can improve our Mental Health, particularly when dealing with stress, anxiety and grief.



Exercise used to feel like a chore for me. A ‘workout’ meant pain, discomfort and hard work. Although I grew up dancing, to me that wasn’t so much exercise as it was fun with my friends on a Saturday.


Something dramatically changed along the way and I would even go as far to say I exercise now to be a great dancer, teacher and do all the physical activities I love such as walking, cycling & surfing . To me physical exercise is a necessity. I see it as essential as brushing my teeth. Without it I don’t feel like myself and I feel considerably less confident, focused & enthusiastic about work, life and social situations. So, what changed?





Firstly, I got older. Age naturally brings with it aches, pains and injuries. Finding I couldn’t do things I’d done before with such ease was the stark realisation that I needed to do something now to keep my body young, healthy and fit. The thought that I would never be as young as I am in this moment was the fuel to my fire and got me moving. Knowing that movement and exercise will never be as naturally easy as it is today, continues to motivate me daily to get up, move, challenge my body and become stronger, more mobile and more flexible than ever before.

However, in the last few years the effect on my mind and mental health has to be the primary reason as to why I will wake up at 5.30am (if that is the only window of opportunity I have to exercise) when it’s cold and rainy, to move my body, elevate my heart rate and set up my mind for the day. How many times have you felt like the day has run away from you? How many times have you felt a slave to your job or your to do list? How many times have you finished the day feeling like you had no time for yourself? Hundreds right? Well I’m here to tell you that can change today.

Without a shadow of a doubt exercise is what allows me to deliver classes and pt sessions from 6.30am in the morning to 9pm at night. It’s what allows me to stay motivated to create content and videos for you to enjoy. It’s what allows me to get my work done and enjoy my free time with friends and family. Yes I’ll make the statement (which you already know) that exercise will change your life. This isn’t an opportunity for me to show off, it’s a chance for me to remind you that you can take control of your life, body and mind today and positively impact the people and world around you.



One of the most amazing things about exercise is that it’s always available to us. As long as we carve out a little but of time it will be there to greet us on the happiest of days but also on our hardest days. We often just need ourselves, a little bit of space and the willingness to move for a short period of time. The days when you least feel like moving and being ‘motivated’ is exactly when we need it. Exercise doesn’t need to look like a heavy weight session or HIIT workout it can be a gentle walk or gentle movement sequence like this one.


Now if you’re geeky like me and what to know WHY exercise will help your mind (mood & cognitive function) read on:



The Geeky Stuff


Have you ever noticed that while your body might feel a bit fatigued, you feel more alert and energised after a bout of exercise? It's been proven that physical activity can improve brain functions like memory and cognition both immediately after a workout and in the long-term.


But HOW and WHY does exercise improve our brain function?


Every time you move your body a number of beneficial neurotransmitters and ‘brain chemicals’ such as dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin and acetylcholine are released (don’t worry I won’t test you on these later). A healthy high in these chemical messengers positively affect many parts of your behaviour and physical functions, such as:

  • Mood

  • Attention

  • Alertness

  • Pain processing

  • Motivation

  • Learning

  • Heart rate

  • Digestion

  • Sleep


Neurotransmitter summery

Domaine - motivation and mood

Norepinephrine - fight or flight, increased alertness and awareness

Serotonin - digestion, mood, sleep

Acetylcholine - attention, memory & motivation


It only takes 10-30 minutes of daily physical activity to instantly lift your mood. If you don’t have much time or space it can be a walk, taking the stairs instead of the lift, or this quick 10 minute, no equipment necessary movement sequence.


Stress & Anxiety

Many of us experience stress in our daily lives. From mild to severe, from physical to mental, stress and anxiety can have a debilitating effect on us. Ironically, exercise puts our physical body under momentary stress which in turn relieves our mental stress and anxiety levels. It does this through the release of chemicals we spoke about above which have long lasting effects after exercise.

Many of us have lived through stressful times, especially over the last few years. From the global pandemic, to the financial crisis and most recently the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it’s safe to say we have been faced with challenging and anxiety inducing situations. There are, fortunately, ways for us to deal with these testing times with exercise being arguably the most effective. Just 30 minutes of exercise has been said to positively impact your mood for up to two hours. Maybe just setting your alarm 30 minutes earlier to move, or getting off the train, tube or bus a stop earlier really will have long lasting effects. Exercise will help us build resilience and therefore have better control over our thoughts and mood. It also helps relieve stress by acting as a sort of time-out from the stress causing events and activities. As you get moving in a way that feels good to you try to make it as beneficial and enjoyable as possible. If you're doing a workout listen to your favourite artist. If you're taking a walk listen to your favourite podcast or audio book. Use this time to bring joy into your life and make the most of this dedicated, self care time.

Grief

Often when we are experiencing grief, (just like when we are stressed or anxious) exercise is the last thing on our mind since it takes such a mental and physical toll on our bodies. We know exercise is good for us but how do we do it when we have lost the will & motivation. Many of us have know that exercise releases endorphins which make us feel better so how to do we get up and do it? Firstly knowledge is key - if we know why we are doing it and how it works we are much more likely to do it.

Endorphins reduce our experience of pain by working on our opioid receptors (pain transmitters). These are the very same receptors that are impacted by opiate drugs, like morphine and heroin. Endorphins are a natural chemical that can give us the same euphoric and pain-reducing feelings of these drugs, without all the terrible side effects. Endorphins are the reason that we feel so good after we exercise, even when it felt impossible to peel ourselves off the sofa. Every time you workout and move take a minute at the end to notice how much better you feel. Remember this feeling when it feels like a challenge to get up exercise. Over time you'll create the habit of moving and it will become a joyful and enjoyable task rather than one to dread.

Final Thoughts


Our ability to move is what keeps us agile, independent, and in a commanding position to get where we choose to go. There is no denying the power of movement on our physical and mental health. Subconscious, as most of our daily movements may be, the act of moving freely makes us feel in control. Likewise, when movement is compromised, it generates frustration and eventually perhaps, stress, anxiety and depression. Small daily choices to move a little more will guide you in having control over you mental and physical health. Just making the next right choice for your body and mind is all you need to focus on today. If you can commit to putting yourself first daily, even for just 10-30 minutes the rest will begin to look after yourself.


As always you are welcome to move with me anytime and I’ll be there whether you have 10 or 30 minutes. Take a minute for you today and I guarantee you'll feel better.





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