I have recently extended my therapy practice to include walking therapy/coaching with a backdrop of being a hiker for many years. As much as we focus on the importance of parity between mental and physical health in healthcare systems, the interlink is known to be deeply rooted in our physiology and psychology and the importance of exercise for mental health is fundamental. As the World Cup starts this weekend, I wanted to reflect on 5 ways exercise and sport can improve our well-being and tips to optimise its effect.
1. ‘Let me walk on it’
-Boosting decision making and memory through a walking reset
Just as sleep helps us process our thinking, exercise helps clarify our thoughts and boost our thinking power. The hippocampus, the area associated with memory, is also shown to increase in size when exercise is consistently taken. Associations may be due to increased blood flow and release of various chemical exchanges including release of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor.
TIP-For this boost little and often is key. This may look like taking moderate exercise such as walking for 40 mins a day 3 times a week and gaining regular boosts of daily exercise by walking for a few minutes each half an hour (or just gaining passive exercise as often as you can).
2. ‘Re-GROUNDING oneself’
-Using mindfulness techniques during exercise to combat stress in the moment
Many activities can bring one to a ‘flow’ like state where they are completely immersed in the experience. Through this, one may gain greater awareness of one’s surroundings and a heightened appreciation for living. Exercise here can form a type of moving meditation that notably reduces stress, or rather reframes the experience of stress so one can continue one’s day more effectively.
TIP- Focus on sensation and physical body presence while in activity, or the mindful focus on the breath changing. When challenging thoughts or feelings come up, use the noting technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy- ‘noting’ / acknowledging any thought or feeling e.g. ‘There’s sadness again...’ and then returning to presence/breath focus. Extend your mindfulness to notice all sensations- what you hear, see, touch, smell and taste.
3.‘Paint a picture’
-expanding creativity through connecting with nature
Getting outdoors for activity is thought to reset one’s attention, together with offering opportunities for awe. Essentially, the prior two benefits above are offered in an enhanced way by being in a natural setting. Theories link that the pre-frontal cortex benefits from some down time, which is even more scarce to come by when we are forever online with our electronic devices. Our creativity can then be released again, even further refreshed by views of natural scenes.
TIP- Any avenue to combine nature with exercise may benefit, even looking outside a window at nature when exercising can augment benefits for the brain. When out on a walk or run see if you can find more natural routes- and if you can, keeping safety always first, ditch devices from time to time.
4. ‘Connecting in class’
-Building connection through group workouts and play
Exercise offers a base to share connection with others, whether in team bonding or making community links in a local exercise class. The value of social connection is known to boost wider wellbeing and benefit mental health. On a field or in a hall, forms of group activity often also enable a form of play- a critical base for child development, and a space equally beneficial to adults. Notably committing to a group activity may make your exercise regime also more likely to happen through the power of group accountability.
TIP- Plan an exercise class or team sport and try and make it a routine to benefit from both exercise and social wellbeing. Choose exercise that brings joy – connecting with your own inner child as much as others in a group, dancing around the living room also counts!
5. ‘Run and recover’
-Increasing strides to enhance self-esteem and lower anxiety and depression
Running has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants for depression over 6 months. This may work through a combination of factors- changes to the brain, cortisol levels, a sense of confidence through behavioural change and achievement. A caution exists to balance aerobic workouts with rest; High intensity workouts can be shown to heighten cortisol in a way which, without recovery, could be counter beneficial. Equally one is not to exercise and negate other mental health/wellbeing recommendation especially when risk exists.
TIP- Increase into aerobic activities for a range of mental health benefits, but balance this with support from professionals – and ensure days are taken to rest.
Whichever way you stretch into exercise, planning it for your mental wellbeing is as fundamental a purpose as for your physical fitness. Boosting cognition, creativity and memory and reducing anxiety, depression and stress. Exercise is a tool to connect with ourselves, one another and the world around us. I hope to write further on this as I build my walking therapy practice. For now, I am walking to collect my little one, with mindful pacing and phone turned off.