I watched a lot the Olympics this Summer. I turned it on whenever I could. And I have been holding the dialectic of both understanding the challenges of holding an Olympics with a worldwide pandemic and having compassion & excitement for the athletes choosing to do what they do best.
I would watch almost any sport and find myself tearing up when anyone from anywhere wins, hits a personal best, or just simply looks like they are having a good time. Handball? Yep. Canoe? Check. But I would also tear up from the hype videos and the moments when you realize someone who has been training possibly their whole life is done being a world class athlete.
Mental health was at the forefront of this year’s Olympics. Of course, mental health and sports has been talked about before, but this year something felt different, Athletes like Simone Biles talked the talk and walked the walk to take care of themselves. For me, it was a welcomed reminder that these people are humans, not just athletes. It reminded me that when we view people as humans first, compassion follows.
Having been on a swim team since I was 5 years old, I distinctly remember the moment after college when I did not have an organized daily exercise routine in my life. It illuminated my need for structure, movement in my body, and social connection that I had previously been getting from being on a sport’s team. It also showed me how much my mental health and sense of self was tied to being an athlete.
I am not, never was, nor ever will be a world-class athlete. But I do relate to the ebb and flow of balancing movement & exercise with the other parts that make my life whole and complete. In the end, I do view body movement as an important part of what energizes me, and ultimately improves my mental health. What follows are some ways in which research has found body movement and exercise to be helpful for mental health.
Some (Not all) Ways Body Movement and Exercise Can Help Mental Health
There is an actual chemical link between your body and your stress response.
Certainly exercise and body movement help your physical health. It bolsters your immune system, prevents cardiovascular issues, and strengthens bones and joints. But also, it can boost your mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, there is not enough evidence to prove the previous theories that exercise causes endorphins to be true.
Instead, more recent research has suggested a combination of the neurochemical norepinephrine and the brain region locus coeruleus play a key role in the stress response cycle. Also, exercise helps the body and brain strengthen its communication and learn how to effectively handle physical stress put on the body.
Trauma builds in the body. It releases with movement.
When we go through traumatic experiences our body and brain are rewired. Books such as “The Body Keeps Score” by teach us the important of mindfulness, body awareness. Bodywork, body movement, and exercise can help us learn how to tap into our physiological responses to gain control and mastery of our bodies, minds, and lives again.
Fight or Flight responses can be fine-tuned through body movement.
With body movement and exercise, we can become more familiar with the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems that create our fight and flight response. Breathwork exercises associated with body movement involve are deep paced breathing in which an individual exhales longer than their inhale. According to Harvard Health Publishing, deep breathing “encourages full oxygen exchange” and therefore, “slow heartbeat and stabilize blood pressure”. Try simply googling paced breathing exercises and you will find a world of accessible resources.
Exercises can be preventative for intense emotions.
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, there is a whole acronym that helps remind us how to help reduce our emotional vulnerabilities. In other words, even when we are not in control of our external circumstances, are still in control of our bodies. Movement can create a buffer between ourselves and our negative emotions.
This is all reminding me that I need to get off the computer and go for a walk. My podcasts are piling up! Whatever body movement and exercise you choose, it can be an important factor in keeping your mental health in check. When blended with other parts of life that brings you balance, exercise can bring you fulfillment.
Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response – Harvard Health. (2020). Retrieved 8 August 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response
Working out boosts brain health. (2020). Retrieved 8 August 2021, from https://www.apa.org/topics/exercise-fitness/stress
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score. New York: Penguin Books.
About The Author
Lizzy Kosin, LCSW-C is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Therapist at Montgomery County Counseling Center in Rockville, MD. She earned her AM degree (equivalent to an MSW) from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Her training includes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Lizzy takes a casual approach to therapy. Because of this, she works very well with kids & teens. She also works with adults who want the benefits of therapy without feeling stuffy or over-medicalized. She values the importance of the mind-body connection and using experiential activities to keep the fun in building insight and motivating towards progress. Lizzy is licensed in both Maryland and Washington DC.