Exercise and mental health are hot topics nowadays with the pandemic. In Toronto, we have started our third round “lock down” and you can’t help but wonder, “when is it going to end?” I have been steadfast in maintaining a physical activity routine despite not finding a strong internal motivation at times. It’s tough to get moving when your mind is filled with stress or worry. On the other hand, there are some who have been able to re-invigorate their programs while working from home.
There are many reasons to exercise or engage in daily physical activity if you are struggling emotionally. Do you need some peace of mind? Maybe “get out” of your head and into your body for a little while?
We have been cooped up for some time and we continue to be asked to limit where we go on a daily basis. Your “live” social sphere may be limited to just a few people. We feel restricted in more ways than one.
Now may be the time to make some breakthroughs on exercise and mental health and make new connections on what you can gain from daily exercise.
Runner’s high. Zen like states. Release after exertion. Coldness converted into warmth. Contraction followed by relaxation. Stiffness transformed into fluidity. Restriction remolded into freedom. Exercise can address mental health on many levels and from different angles.
Here some of the angles I use exercise to transform my personal state of mental health well being.
Mental centering through exercise
When exercise requires you to focus “inside” it may have a calming effect. Taking the time to focus on our inner health using exercise can provide that daily reset, allowing us to cope better with all of the competing demands for our attention.
On a practical level, start with a walk. During the walk focus on your posture and how your feet connect with the ground. As you change your weight from one foot to the other, notice how the energy is transmitted from the ground and through the foot. Next imagine how that energy is transmitted upward through your lower leg and knee. At what point do you feel the front of your thigh or gluteals contract? Can you breath deeply as you lengthen your spine? This could start out as a walking meditation at first, and once warmed up, could end in a brisker walk. Keep it going once you are home with a few stretches that you are already familiar with, allowing yourself to cool down and release.
A lighter note on reducing the mind’s chatter
When using exercise to quiet your mind and to be present, fewer distractions is likely better. If you are exercising with a friend, finding exercise that is intense enough will make talking at a regular rate or volume difficult. This could be a strategy to get you and your friend out of your heads and into your body.
More vigorous or sustained exercise can also lead to the release of endorphins. This can leave you feeling elevated or energized. This is what I work towards when I need a mental break.
Releasing tension that is held in our body
If we sit all the time in a slouched position, there will certain muscles that are tight and others that may be weak or too long. Both can result in muscular discomfort. Now add in some stress or worry. Are your shoulders up to your ears? Teeth clenched? Scrunching your forehead? See if you can find the areas of tension. You may be able to use this information to guide your exercise process by gently contracting then relaxing these areas. With this awareness you may be able to improve your alignment.
Increasing circulation or “flow”
Exercise promotes the stimulation of not just the circulatory system but an increased flow in all of systems that produce energy and discard waste including digestion, respiration, and the lymphatic systems. This enhanced flow decreases stagnancy and improves the clearance of toxins, literally lightening our load.
Our existence and exercise
From a more existential perspective, exercise involves a commitment to the self. It is an acknowledgement of our mortality and the need to address the physical and mental self in order to maximize its wellness and to enhance our ability to experience life.
Get into the exercise arena everyday. Use that arena as your special place where you can re-energize and be in charge of everything that you do. Remember that intentional physical activity(like taking a brisk walk) is just as important as a structured exercise program. If we use physical exercise to center ourselves on a regular basis, it becomes a habit to break up the doldrums. It can become a dependable landing pad that we use to feel more grounded and free, everyday.
Are you ready?