How You Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health—3 Surprising Findings From a Movement Therapist

Physical activity is good for you, there’s no arguing with that. But we want you to pay more attention to your relationship between movement and mental health. That’s because it’s not just a matter of if, but how, you’re moving that determines whether the connection is positive or negative.

Most of our communication is nonverbal and yet, when it comes to mental health, we rely on the 10 percent of our communication that is verbal to uncover, release, and rewire these huge mental and emotional issues. Pilates therapy and small group training is about using movement to tap into our body’s needs and get at the root cause of why we’re feeling what we’re feeling.

Here’s how movement—whether as part of exercise or daily life—plays a role in our overall mental and emotional health.

Taking a “bottoms up” approach to our mental health can build better thought patterns and behaviors

To truly comprehend how the way we move impacts our mental health, we have to understand just how deep the mind-body connection runs. This acknowledgement is often lacking in traditional mental health interventions that focus just on talk therapy, affirmations, or changing thought patterns.

While sometimes those mind-focused strategies can work well on their own, we content that this is taking a “top-down” approach, instead of the body-first, “bottom-up” approach that we have found (as well as thousands of clients over 20 + years of business more helpful. When our nervous system is stuck in a stress response, we can’t reason our way out of it—we have to feel our way. To really change our thoughts, we have to look at how our bodies contribute to and support those thoughts, because, believe it or not, that’s actually where they originate. It’s sensations, it’s experiences; taking in information through the body creates those thought patterns and habits.

The first step in this “bottom-up” approach is noticing how your body is responding when you feel a certain way: “Am I tense? Am I rigid? How much space am I taking up? What’s the rhythm of how I’m moving through the day? If we can start to notice that and then start to challenge it, or expand the way we’re moving in that moment, we can circumvent the mind patterns.

Exercise without self-awareness can negatively impact your mental health

This deep mind-body connection doesn’t turn off when you’re in workout mode—in fact, when we move more, we feel more—and that’s not always a positive thing. Take running, for instance. If I’m on the go, go, go, and I have a hard time slowing down, sprinting is not actually going to help me change that pattern. It’s just going to perpetuate the go, go go (some runners have, upon reflection, realized they were running away from something). The idea is not to give up the exercise you love but to approach it with more intention, and to implement other spectrums of movement—which for the “on-the-go” runner may be something slower-paced, like Pilates or yoga.

That’s not to say that how beneficial a form of exercise is to your mental health is correlated to its intensity level alone. Even yoga can lead to anxiety. It’s not the practice, it’s the execution.

How do you know if your current fitness routine is detrimental to your mental health? At Pilates Manitoba and MELT Method Winnipeg, we do a pre- and post-consultation, taking notice of how you feel before and after your workout. While exercise may leave you physically exhausted, she says, it should make you feel emotionally energized and recharged, or like you’ve been able to release something.Come and learn how to incorporate this in your workout life.

Movement can build emotional resilience

Just as changing up your exercise routine can make your body stronger, creating a “robust movement vocabulary” can also build emotional resilience. If you are used to moving all around; if something comes at you, you may not be expecting it, but you will be more able to get back on your feet to handle whatever is coming.

The same logic applies on an emotional level. It’s about trying new movement, or expanding the reach or the range of the movement you currently do, which could mean identifying if you are only using your lower body, or noticing that you’re often moving forward and backward but never twisting or moving side to side. We also suggest “expanding your definition of movement,” by incorporating more playfulness  in everyday life—like dancing while you do chores, or kicking a ball around the park.

We do these movements as kids, and then as we get older, we don’t have time for play when we need it most. We don’t have movement at our disposal, or we’re like ‘I’m not free anymore—I can’t do that.’ So having a robust movement vocabulary is literally building the embodied dictionary we carry with us.