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Exercise: The Wonder Drug

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

The Importance of Body Movement from a Holistic Wellness Perspective

Body movement and exercise as medicine

Are you aware of any treatment that can simultaneously: balance mood, improve sleep, reduce stress, balance hormones, boost confidence, improve brain function, target digestive problems, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce risk and improve survival for cancer, regulate blood sugar, protect against osteoporosis and fractures, and promote weight loss?

I’m gonna be that annoying gal that says, “I am. It’s called ...exercise.”

We all know body movement is “important,” but I’m not sure I, a former D1 athlete, practitioner, and coach knew just how powerful it is for our mental and physical health until I started digging into the research.

Body Movement and Mental Health

A recent study done by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found body movement equally as effective in treating mild-moderate depression and anxiety as prescription medication and states it should be considered as a primary treatment.

Dr. John Ratey says in his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, that most prescription drugs used to improve mental health target one or more of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Exercise also has a profound effect on balancing these neurotransmitters without any of the negative side effects such as weight gain, nausea, and low libido.

Dr. Ratey also discusses the profound effect of body movement on other aspects of mental health such as mental sharpness, anxiety, depression, ADHD, addiction, mood swings, hormonal balance (PMS, PPD, pregnancy, and menopause), and aging.

Body Movement Types and Their Benefits

What are the different body movement types and their evidence-based benefits:

Mindful movements (Yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates, group stretching):

Cardio/High-Intensity Interval Training:

  • Improves: weight loss, HDL (good cholesterol), self-esteem and mental health, brain function, blood sugar regulation, lean muscle mass, and strength, and strengthens bones.

  • Decreases: visceral fat, LDL, blood pressure, low back pain associated with arthritis and fibromyalgia, & risk of fracture and osteoporosis

Type and Frequency of Exercise

Different forms of body movement are going to be useful for achieving different goals. For example, studies show that resistance exercise had the largest effects on depression, while yoga and other mind–body exercises were most effective for reducing anxiety.

There isn't a one size fits all approach, however I recommend that you incorporate a combination of the three forms of movement each week to reap the wide range of benefits each one can give.

A good formula is 2 days of cardio/HIIT, 2 days of resistance training, and 2 days of something restorative like yoga, mindful stretching, or walking. Aim for 20-30 min/day. You can also work with a trainer or wellness coach to customize a plan specific to your health goals/needs.

Remember that the best exercise plan is the one that you will do. Start small and build.

Knowledge is one thing, find the motivation and time to implement body is another. How do we get into a rhythm of exercise or get to the point where our bodies crave movement when we miss a few days? I came up with 10 mindset shifts to get you started when approaching exercise.

10 Mindset Shifts to Consider When Approaching Exercise:

  1. Make exercise a non-negotiable part of your life. Think of it like eating, sleeping, and brushing your teeth. It is daily, essential self-care. We were meant to move, but our modern culture has stripped us from our daily activities. Most of us don’t have to physically walk up hills, harvest our food, plow fields, or hand wash our clothes. We weren’t made to sit in front of screens or at a desk for hours a day. Make daily movement something you don’t think about, you just do. Bike to work, take the stairs, keep a set of weights/bands/jump rope/or pull up bar at home, pull up a 20-30 min YouTube vid, or jog around the hood before hopping in the shower. Find ways to incorporate movement into your daily routine so it isn't something you think about "having" to do, it's just part of your routine .

  2. Listen to your body- My college running coach was the first person to tell me that I could listen to my body and it would tell me what I needed. The concept of "listening to our bodies" is not broadcasted in our current medical system, but it is so empowering and essential to wellness. Our minds and thoughts run the show most of the hours of the day which is often a cause of our anxiety, stress, and depression. We can go weeks or months without giving attention to the alarms are body might be sending. Think of exercise as protected time to turn off thoughts and tune into your body and breath. Over time, you will get to know your body and trust its ability tell you what it needs.

  3. Movement is detox for negative emotions- Robin Berzin MD, author of the book State Change, says our bodies store emotions and when they don’t have an outlet for negative emotions (meditation or exercise) they get trapped inside, causing biochemical disruptions. When I find myself ruminating about a difficult emotion, I hop on a bike and give myself 20 min to transfer the emotion (aggression, anger, hurt, loss) out, tuning in to my body and breath. Though emotions don’t fully disappear in 20 min, I always feel some sense of release, relief, and clarity when I hop off the bike. Think of daily exercise as a daily cleanse of built up tension and stress. Use it to let emotions that don't serve you go.

4. Exercise as Friend, not Foe – chances are, you will have to cut something out to make room for daily movement. There’s only so much time in a day. When it comes to exercise, what else can give you 20+ benefits in a 20-30 min timespan? Body movement is the friend that keeps giving. Why not cut something out that doesn’t serve you, like doom scrolling on SM or saying no to people who drain you? Exercise is the friend you wanna keep around.

5. Teaching mental strength- Promise to speak kindly to yourself while you work out. Exercise may bring up negative self-talk and difficult emotions, but if you can practice speaking kindly and positively to yourself during a controlled stressor, like exercise, it will teach your mind to speak kindly during other forms of stress. You can chose a one line affirmation to repeat to yourself throughout the workout if that helps (I do it often). It can also train you how to use your breath to regulate your stress (like exhaling while lifting). Pushing the limits of your body can give you confidence to push through other challenges in your life with kindness and grace.

6. Find what works for you- For some, working out with peers is essential for motivation and provides the additional benefit of “belonging" to a community. For others, squeezing in a solo 20-minute spin or run is most therapeutic. Try different things for several weeks (give an activity 1-2 months to see if its a fit) and then commit to a plan that you love.

7. Commit for 3 months, once you've chosen a plan. Ditch the scale and don’t think about weight loss. Ditch the watch if you were at a different level a few years before. Just show up every week. Promise yourself that you’re going to show up for a set amount of time and give yourself 3 months to see and feel results. After 3 months you can iterate, add on a new layer of challenge, try a new routine, or keep going.

8. Accountability- Find a way to hold yourself accountable whether you're like me and meticulously plot out your days, weeks, months, and quarters on a calendar or you tell a partner or a friend. You could hire a wellness coach or trainer, sign up for a race, or reward yourself after 3 months of consistency. Think about what has motivated you in the past (your why), and create a system of accountability to get you to the place (around month 3) where you notice when you've missed a week of body movement, and you crave it.

9. Achievable-Start small if you need to. If it’s been a while, commit to 3 days of walk-jogging. The best exercise plan is the kind you’ll do. In my busy seasons of life, I always fall back to 5-6d of 20 min/day: 2x resistance, 2x cardio, 2x stretching or walking. I know I can always squeeze 20 min in/day.

10. Variety If you're like me, you get bored when something loses its challenge, Variety is the spice of life. Something I like to do is plan my health goals in quarters. For example, in Q1, I may train for a 10k. In Q2, I may take a boxing class for 3 months or join a pickleball league. This keeps me from getting burned out on any one workout routine. Switch things up if you need to, plan to try the activity you've been wanting in the next quarter. Create a rhythm variety within exercise and you will slowly be adding to your tool kit of workouts. You'll be learning what works best to modulate your mind and body.

My hope is that 1 or two of these will resonate with you and motivate you to lace up those shoes and experience the wonder drug that is consistent body movement! If you've taken nothing else away from this, let this one stick with you: no other drug or treatment will give you as many benefits as simply moving your body daily will. Make it a priority and experience the long and short term benefits of what is exercise!

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