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Movement for the Mind: How Exercise Impacts our Mental Health

“All that is important is this one moment in movement. Make the moment important, vital, and worth living. Do not let it slip away unnoticed and unused.” 
― Martha Graham (American dancer)

Get Moving in 2019

Here we are at the end of another year, and the time has come when many people reflect on the past and make plans for a healthier or happier future. If your New Year’s resolution includes getting moving with an exercise plan, research suggests that your physical and your mental health will benefit!

Your Brain on Exercise

If you have ever experienced sadness or depression, you have probably also noticed that going for a walk or getting some exercise helps lift your spirits. Did you know that there is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon? 

According to research, exercising triggers the release of chemicals called endorphins into your body. Endorphins not only interact with receptors in your brain to reduce your body’s perception of pain, but also contribute to a mental “euphoria” or “runner’s high” sensation, resulting in an uplifted mood and an enhanced sense of overall well-being.1 Exercise also increases blood flow and neuronal activity in certain areas of the brain including the hippocampus, the area of the brain directly related to memory, emotional regulation and learning.2

Enhancing our physique can be one powerful motivator for committing to regular exercise in the New Year, which, in turn, can boost self-confidence. In addition to relieving stress and producing feelings of euphoria, regular movement can raise levels of self-confidence, according to some studies. 3

Mind-Body Medicine

When you hear the word “mind-body medicine”, you might immediately think of sweaty yoga studios or groups of people practicing tai chi in the park. If you are not a yoga aficionado or a martial artist, have no fear! As you can see from the data above, all exercise is, in essence, beneficial for the mind and body. If you love running, commit to jogging three times a week. If you are a swimmer or a dancer, try to hit the pools or the dance studio more often in 2019.

When we consider the body and mind as integrated, holistic entities, it is easy to see how physical exercise can have a profound impact on mental health. In a recent article published in Psychology Today, the author writes, In fact, increasingly robust evidence suggests that exercise is not only necessary for the maintenance of good mental health, but it can be used to treat even chronic mental illness.”4

The moral of the story? Exercise in ways that make you happy, and be prepared to reap the physical and mental benefits in 2019!

Happy New Year!

 

 

1https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/exercise-depression#1

2https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/what-works-and-why/201803/how-your-mental-health-reaps-the-benefits-exercise

3https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/what-works-and-why/201803/how-your-mental-health-reaps-the-benefits-exercise

4https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/exercise-depression#1


6 Pillars of Health

Modern Lifestyle and Our Health

According to some models of healthcare, many of the common diseases Americans suffer, including heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disease are largely unrelated conditions, and therefore treated differently.

I’d argue that these diseases do share a fundamental theme: 21st century lifestyle.

*(If you want to really delve into how the modern world is killing us, and you desire a radical, piercing, chilling, brilliant perspective on illness and “wellness,” forget about the rest of this post, and just read this.)

One hundred years ago, we didn’t die from the same things we do now (see  What Killed Us, Then and Now for an overview). Of course, there are variables that need to be taken into account, including vaccines, regular health screenings, and other advances in medicine that have reduced the incidence of now treatable (or avoidable) ailments that once might have sent a person to their grave. But why the increase in heart disease? Why the increase in stroke? Diabetes? What it is about our modern lifestyles that increase the prevalence of these diseases? And what can we do about it?

Staying healthy in the 21st century is a multi-faceted endeavor that includes diet, movement, sleep, stress, community, and purpose.

1. Diet & Nutrition

You’re heard it a billion times, I’m sure.

“Eat real food.”

“Don’t eat junk.”

“Avoid toxins.”

An ideal diet incorporates real, nutrient rich, whole foods, and limits the amount of processed and refined foods that are associated with the Standard American Diet (SAD). How to pull this off, especially if you’re strapped for time and cash? Check out 10 Simple and Sustainable Dietary Guidelines for straightforward, practical advice.

2. Movement & Exercise

Ain’t no question about it. The human body is designed for movement.

But Americans have an increasingly sedentary lifestyle; in fact, many of us spend an 8 hours sitting at work, then come home and…sit some more. After-dinner activities include watching TV or scrolling through Facebook. If you’ve done this kind of thing (and most of us have), I’m sure you’ve felt it. Things get stagnant, fast.

Daily movement is an essential part of health. What kind of things do you love to do, that also include movement? Is it dance? Long urban walks while listening to your favorite podcast? Gardening? Yoga? Soccer? Going to the gym?

And by the way, you don’t have to beat yourself up when you’re exercising – for real. Here’s a really great podcast episode about exercise, and how much we really need to do in order to stay fit. (It might surprise you.)

Side note: See here for some great instructive yoga videos in which instructors acknowledge ableism and teach yoga from a place in which body diversity is recognized and supported.

3. Restorative Sleep

Prioritizing sleep is difficult. Especially for Americans, who feel like they should work harder, make more money, look hotter, and smile more. 1/3 of Americans are getting fewer than 6 hours of sleep each night. But here’s the deal – you need 7 to 8 hours of sleep to function properly, and sleep deprivation has been associated with a long list of chronic diseases.  So, yes, getting good sleep is important.

Here’s 3 simple things you can do to sleep better:

  1. Limit your exposure to artificial light at night (i.e. no electronics for two hours before bed).
  2. Create an environment conducive to sleep (comfy, cool, and dark).
  3. Avoid eating too close to bedtime (my rule is if it’s two hours before bedtime, then it’s tea with honey).

4. Manage Stress

It doesn’t matter how healthy you are – if you don’t have ways to manage stress, you’re at an increased risk for modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and thyroid issues.

Here’s the deal. Maintaining your health involves homeostasis, which is the body’s ability to regulate its inner environment (i.e. your bodies ability to return to baseline after a stressful event). If you’re exposed to unmanaged and/or chronic stress, the body can lose the ability to return to homeostasis, and this sets the stage for disease.

Finding what stress management tools works for you is essential. It could be yoga, mantras, meditation, music, long strolls in a green space, or simply hanging out with a good friend. Whatever it is, do your best to identify it, and incorporate it into your life as much as possible.

Chris Kresser (one of my favorite people out there writing about health) recommends two books on this subject: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky and When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection by Gabor Mate.

5. Community

Group of old people walking outdoor
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” – Dorothy Day

Whether it’s family, friends, a housing co-op, or a support group, people who feel part of a social group or community increase their chances of living longer. In one meta-analytic review, researchers reported that people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships. From this review:

Humans are naturally social. Yet, the modern way of life in industrialized countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships. Many people in these countries no longer live in extended families or even near each other. Instead, they often live on the other side of the country or even across the world from their relatives. Many also delay getting married and having children. Likewise, more and more people of all ages in developed countries are living alone, and loneliness is becoming increasingly common. In the UK, according to a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 10% of people often feel lonely, a third have a close friend or relative who they think is very lonely, and half think that people are getting lonelier in general. Similarly, across the Atlantic, over the past two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who say they have no close confidants. There is reason to believe that people are becoming more socially isolated…

These findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity. Furthermore, the overall effect of social relationships on mortality reported in this meta-analysis might be an underestimate, because many of the studies used simple single-item measures of social isolation rather than a complex measurement.

6. Purpose

The research is growing. If we can access our “metaphorical compass” and let that provide direction in our day-to-day lives, we’re increasing our chances of living longer. Here for a reason? Is there something in your life that drives you? If so, you’re likely to be here for longer. Check it out.