The Importance of Exercise

January 3, 2022 by Seth Strawn, Child & Family Therapist

In this episode of the Family Care Learning Podcast, we hear from Brandon and Seth who discuss the importance of exercise in psychology and in our general sense of well being.

Can exercise really influence our brains and influence the way that we feel or change the way we feel?

Seth shares how exercise can help decrease symptoms of anxiety, symptoms of depression, relieves stress, relieves built up tension within our bodies, increases our energy, improves our mood and overall improves our just general sense of wellbeing.

When we’re moving and when we’re exercising, one thing that’s doing is it’s increasing our blood flow. If we’re doing some type of activity, whether it be just a moderate level activity, like hiking going for light jogs, swimming, climbing, dancing, our heart rates going up a little bit where we’re getting the blood flowing, which is sending more blood to our brain and then more oxygen throughout our bodies.

It’s creating more of a sense of body awareness and so once the blood is flowing, we start having more of a sense of a presence within our own body.

If you’ve got areas in your body where you’ve been carrying stress, you begin to notice it more, especially if you’re doing more isometric exercises, any type of stretching or exercises where you’re holding poses.

Let’s say you’re doing a wall sit or a plank. You start to notice, where is this tension? And then your body’s releasing that. When we are stressed or anxious, we have more adrenaline built up in our bodies. We have more cortisol built up in our bodies and those are fantastic to have if they’re being used in that moment.

A lot of times when you see chronic stress and acute anxiety, is those chemicals just build and build and build, but we’re not actually releasing them. Through exercise, we can start to release the tension and at the same time we’re increasing happy chemicals. One of them would be serotonin and so when we’re engaging in regular activity we increase our levels of serotonin.

Serotonin plays a role in our sense of belonging as well as positive identity. I you’re feeling anxious or depressed, those are probably not too great at the moment. You probably just feel isolated, alone and probably not too good about yourself.

Sometimes our bodies are constantly to function at their prime, they’re seeking balance so many moving factors. It’s good to know your window of tolerance, and whether you’ve gone above it or you’ve sunk below it.

A lot of times what we see when people who are depressed, if you’re looking at the nervous system, they’re more in that dorsal area, they’ve kind of sunk low and say things like, ‘I don’t have the energy. I don’t have the motivation.’

Dopamine is huge with motivation. When we look at a client or even ourselves and we just have no motivation, like I don’t want to get out of bed this morning, then there’s probably pretty low levels of dopamine in our system. Exercise can help increase that, can help increase motivation.

Dopamine also helps with our learning habits and learning patterns. A lot of times when we fall into these habits, even unhealthy habits and we go, ‘Why do I keep doing this?’ Dopamine plays a role in that.

Are there specific exercises that are better for your mental health?

Seth says to just move.

High intensity exercises could have fantastic benefit for our mental wellbeing, overall wellbeing, but then if we do too much of it then it can have the opposite effect. First, it starts wearing us down. If we do minimal low level intensity workouts to where we’re not actually increasing our heart rate at all or not really doing much, but we’re moving and that is a start and something that’s more than a lot of people are doing. But try to kick it up a bit.

For me, if I’ve got a mental fog and I can’t focus any longer or I’m just feeling stressed, I typically go to more than moderate intensity. So for me, that’d be indoor rock climbing, a good long hike and maybe a light jog, dancing for some people swimming, a walk and keeping a good pace. If you don’t have a lot of free time you could try walking up and down the stairs a few times at work.

Another example is if you go to the grocery store, don’t look for the closest parking spot.

Try to find ways to exercise as a means of stepping away from the busy-ness on purpose, to move on purpose.

When we’re going for a jog or a hike or swimming or dancing or lifting weights or engaging in stretches, whether it be different yoga poses or even just basic stretches, or you’re in your room before you start your day incorporating bilateral stimulation, which helps with our ability to process. What we’re doing is we’re creating new neural pathways and we’re making those connections in our brain processing. It also promotes the growth of new brain cells.

At Arizona Family Counseling we use EMDR with some of our therapists, which there’s a lot of research based on the bilateral stimulation. We actually take positive thoughts and replace negative thoughts or feelings with bilateral stimulation and that helps to reinforce more healthy, more productive thoughts.

I’m going to go for a walk around the neighborhood and I’m just going to pay attention to my surroundings. I’m going to try not to think about work. I’m just going to try and just be present. Sometimes we can make exercise way more complicated than it needs to be.

Some people may feel like they don’t have time to exercise or do something for themselves but even things that you’re already doing, you can just be a little bit more intentional about.

Are there any cautions or things people should think about before they start engaging in any kind of physical activity?

Other than checking with your doctor, keep in mind balance.

It’s more than just exercise that contributes to our wellbeing. What are you putting in your body each day? There’s just as much research in science that tells us what we eat has a direct impact on what we feel.

Are you getting enough food in your body each day that’s actually giving you nutrition that your body utilizes? Are you getting enough rest and sleep?

When we are exercising a lot of times we’re tearing literally tearing muscle fibers, that’s how we get stronger. So giving yourself a chance for those to heal so that you’re not causing more damage to your body.

What does your social engagement look like? We are social and relational beings and so a huge part of our wellbeing beyond exercise is our interactions with others. Are you maintaining a healthy friendships, healthy relationships with family, relationships at work? If any of those are lacking, even if you’re moving and working on just being mindful and relieving stress and tension, you’re still not gonna feel that great.

If you’re struggling with self-care, Arizona Family Counseling is here for you. Seth, as one of our therapists is here for you even to work on establishing a healthy self-care routine to engage in to address anxiety or depression, or even just the stress of parenting, maybe children with anxiety and depression and so we hope and pray that this podcast/blog post is an encouragement to you.