Positive effects of exercise on our mental wellbeing – by Jennifer Levy UKCP Registered Psychotherapist & (BWY) Yoga & Meditation Teacher
Hi, I’m Jennifer Levy, many of you know me or may have seen me regularly at Barreworks. I joined as a Barreworks member in 2015 and have not looked back since!
When not at the barre, I work in mental health as a psychotherapist at my private practice in East Twickenham and I also teach meditation & yoga. I’m here to talk about stress and mental health, the mind body connection and what movement and exercise can do for our mental wellness.
We are currently facing challenging and uncertain times during this recent pandemic and all of us have had to navigate big changes to the ways in which we interact with each other and live our daily lives. There has never been a more important time to practice good self-care and look at ways in which we can take care of our mental health and wellbeing.
How stress affects our physical and mental health
When we are overwhelmed by a situation our stress response kicks in to help us cope, anatomically during the stress response adrenaline is produced in the body preparing it for action against threat, triggering our fight/flight/freeze response. This increased production of adrenaline raises the heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy stores. This would enable us to fight harder or run faster from threat or danger. However, most Stressors in modern day life do not require us to fight or flight, and so unused adrenaline gets stored in the body and becomes more harmful than helpful to our physical and mental health. The part of the brain that controls this response is called the Amygdala which is located at the back of the brain. Another hormone influenced by the stress response is Cortisol, this hormone is linked to mood, motivation and fear. It can alter immune system responses and dysregulate appetite.
Stress is held in the body, physically our muscles feel tight and tense and our posture becomes closed and constricted. Sleep patterns and digestive regulation can also be influenced.
This in turn affects our mental health, the effects of stress can leave us feeling frustrated, feeling drained of energy, overwhelmed, anxious, under pressure, foggy thinking, ruminating thoughts or worry. We can be left feeling unmotivated, and that inner critic we know so well can begin to creep in!
These are all very natural mental and physiological responses to the recent stress that we have all had to face, and it’s important to acknowledge how well have all managed to adapt so far and keep things together! We are all being faced with the challenge to re-build our ‘new normal‘ for the time being and find new ways support our mental wellness during this time.
Exercise and mental health
Exercise is a good way to begin to move out of the stress cycle and aid the body and the mind in reaching homeostasis after initial overwhelm.
When we exercise, endorphins, dopamine and serotonin are released which are our feel-good hormones which immediately improve mood. Dopamine also improves motivation and focus, and so with a regular exercise routine we can expect to notice a shift in mindset to feeling more motivated in all areas of our lives. Norepinephrine is released during exercise which is responsible improving attention and perception, it helps against black and white thinking, which is associated with the stress response, enabling thinking to be creative and our perspective to be broader.
Exercise and movement can reduce mental fatigue as it enables a shift in focus and a break from thought patterns or worries. During exercise our awareness is focused on the body and the breath, connecting us to the present moment. When we shift and move our body, our mind and perception shift. Then when we revisit our thoughts, worries or tackle that problem, we are more likely to be able to approach it from a different angle or see things from a different perspective after a shift in focus.
Regular exercise helps to release any adrenalin stored up in the body caused by stress, and counter act the negative effects of stress and adrenalin in the body. Exercise helps the body to begin to self-regulate and brings balance both mentally and physiologically. On a psychological level, it can help us to feel stronger, taller and promotes a healthy self-confidence. When we exercise, we feel good afterwards because it’s an achievement and that feeling of triumph has a positive affect on our mental health.
Mind body connection
When we feel stuck, unmotivated or low in mood, there are two effective ways to work through it, one is though the mind, and the other is through the body. While the former is usually approached through talking with those close to you, mentoring, psychotherapy, and inward reflection/meditation. The latter can be achieved through connecting with the body and breath and finding expression through movement and exercise. The alliance between the mind and body is so important because the two inform each other, when we take care of the body, we take care of the mind, when we feel strong in the body, we feel mentally strong and resilient and vice versa.
The body is an expression of our emotional and mental state and it is expressed in the way that we hold ourselves. Movement and exercise helps to open the body, just the action of taking a deep breath, engaging the core muscles, sitting taller, lifting through the waist and rolling the shoulders back and down can evoke a sense of feeling empowered and uplifted, shifting our mental and emotional state. Leaving us with a sense of openness in the body instead of a feeling of constriction and replacing heaviness with a lighter energy in the body.
My approach to mental wellness has always been a holistic one, with an emphasis on the mind – body connection, which inspired me to train as a yoga and meditation teacher. I am certainly an advocate of the positive effects of fitness for mental wellness and I have personally experienced the many benefits of a regular exercise routine both physically and psychologically. Alongside other positive self-care practices it is one of the pillars of support for my mental wellbeing.
I encourage myself and my clients to practice good self-care, set healthy boundaries and maintain their pillars of support to promote healthy self-regulation and mental wellness. In my experience movement and exercise is one pillar of support that positively influences and helps to prop up the other pillars.
Pillars of support:
Eat well & Hydrate
Stress can greatly affect appetite as it disrupts the cortisol levels in the body, this can cause overeating or a supress in appetite. Sometimes the tendency is to reach for comfort foods which can initially provide a sense of comfort, but quite often these foods spike blood sugar levels and in turn begin to affect mood and energy levels, leaving a sluggish feeling in the body and low mood.
Exercise reduces cortisol, regulates appetite, aids digestion and encourages us to stay hydrated. Exercise increases norepinephrine and dopamine, which increase our motivation, positive mood and feeling of wellbeing. When we feel good, we are naturally drawn towards making healthier choices that support our health and wellbeing. Nutritional therapists have long talked about the gut as a second brain, our gut microbiota play a vital role in our physical and psychological health via its own neural network of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut. Healthy digestive regulation and what we feed our body greatly influences our emotional and mental wellbeing.
The breath when used consciously can be harnessed and directed towards regulating the parasympathetic nervous system. For example, the 7/11 breathing technique is used to calm anxiety and panic. Breathing in slowly through the nose for the count of 7 and breathing out slowly through the nose for the count of 11. The key is that the exhale is longer than the inhale.
Exercise naturally begins to regulate the breath, as we naturally start to use the breath to aid exertion and support, balance, endurance and focus during exercise. When we are engaging in a stretch, we are using the breath to calm the nervous system. we should never hold the breath during stretching.
Taking time to rest and connect to the breath has many benefits such as:
- Connecting to the breath has many healing benefits It lowers blood pressure
- Calm, regulates Vagus Nerve
- Conserves energy
- Slows down the heart rate
- Meditation increase levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (a neurotransmitter) which reduces anxiety and depression
- Increases melatonin production (in the pineal gland) which leads to better sleep and mental calmness
Next time you’re enjoying the blissful relaxation at the end of the fusion class, you can be assured that all these positive benefits are taking place!
Make time for yourself:
Taking time for yourself refreshes and re-energises you. It allows the space to come back to yourself which is so important for mental wellbeing. Often our attention is directed externally and particularly during these times when families are self-isolating together and the home is a constant busy place!
That hour carved out for your workout is a wonderful opportunity to take some time out for yourself, gather your thoughts and to give your body and mind some TLC.
Create a nice calm space for yourself where you can focus and feel at ease… (when your muscles aren’t burning!)
Rituals really help us to keep up positive habits and create a sense of familiarity and routine which can act as a support and reduce anxiety. Taking some time out to exercise rewards us with a renewed sense of accomplishment, feeling stronger and taller, clearer thinking and a fresh focus.
Connect with others
Exercise is also a great way to connect with others, whether that means getting the whole family involved in an online workout or connecting with others via a What’s App group after the class to share pictures, humour, comments and emojis! knowing that we are all in this together sets up a wonderful feeling of camaraderie and community. We are social beings and feeling part of a group or community is key for our mental wellness. Connecting to each other virtually is so important for our mental health and encourages oxytocin, the hormone responsible for fondness, love and connection with our family, friends and fellow Barrworks tribe!
Exercise helps to regulate our sleep which is so important for our physiological and mental restoration and renewal processes which take place while we sleep. Sleep is one of our basic needs and so when we are sleep deprived our stress response is automatically triggered. A lot of deep unconscious processing also happens while we are asleep and dreaming. When we are well rested, we feel refreshed and positive in mood, our thinking is clearer, and we feel better able to cope with challenges and self-regulation.
In times where there is a lot of change, challenge and uncertainty it is important to have something consistent and familiar in place as a pillar of support. Regular exercise helps to support our body and our mental wellness and is essential during these uncertain times to keep us moving, focused and connected to others through online workouts and Whats App groups.
Keep well, stay safe and see you at the virtual Barre!