This blog was written by an organisation outside of the NHS.

Photo from the Centre for Ageing Better

This month’s guest blog is written by Jo Gledhill, a yoga and Pilates teacher at The Well House in Rawdon in time for Mental Health Awareness Week’s theme of ‘Movement: moving more for mental health’.

Movement and mental wellbeing

We all know that movement is important for our body, but we can often overlook what a profound impact movement has on our mind, mood and mental wellbeing.

For most of us, movement is an easily accessible tool to use to boost mental wellbeing. And the great news is, it doesn’t seem to matter too much what kind of movement it is! A ten-minute walk, a quick yoga stretch, a few minutes of Pilates, or jogging or dancing or climbing… As long as you’re moving, you’ll start to feel the benefits. Even better, studies have shown that there are instant benefits after exercise, as well as longer-term, cumulative improvements with regular movement.

Why does movement help our mental health?

As humans, we’ve evolved to be moving. Thousands of years ago, we’d have been moving constantly: to find food, shelter, avoid danger, or with the seasons and weather. Because movement kept us alive (safe from a lion attack!), our brains evolved to ‘reward’ us for movement. From our brain’s point of view, if movement feels good, we’re more likely to do it, and then we’re more likely to stay alive.

Movement is thought to release our ‘happy’ hormones, specifically dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. These neurotransmitters reduce pain and stress, boost mood and make us feel happy.

Movement also regulates the nervous system, which is responsible for how we experience and react to the world day-to-day. Regulating and calming the nervous system has a great impact on how we feel, building mental clarity, calm and focus, as well as helping the body to deeply relax.

Movement and anxiety

For people who struggle with anxiety, movement and exercise have been shown to significantly reduce the reactivity of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. When you move out of ‘fight or flight’, your body and mind get chance to relax, to move in to balance and enjoy rest.

Movement can help lower cortisol levels, decrease resting heart rate and bring calm to the body and mind. When your mind is whirring non-stop, it’s really hard to focus or get a handle on it. But moving your body can often feel more manageable than trying to control your mind, and movement will automatically send signals to your brain, quieting the chatter.

Exercise familiarises people to physical sensations similar to those felt with anxiety, for example, a more rapid heart rate or quicker breathing, in a positive context. This builds resilience and tolerance of these sensations, meaning they’re less overwhelming when experienced again.

Movement and depression

While there is still a lot of work to be done to understand the link between movement and reduction of depression symptoms, there’s no denying how powerful movement is as a therapy. Studies have found that exercising just once brings improvement in mood, attention and appreciation of social interaction. Three big factors in mental wellbeing. In fact, moving in synchronicity with someone else (in a yoga or dance class, for example) has been found to improve depression and boost self-esteem. Movement and social interaction together are a powerful mix.

Photo from the Centre for Ageing Better

Other ways movement helps with depression:

  • Challenge, goal-setting and a sense of achievement
  • Reduction in physical pain (such as back pain or joint pain)
  • Release of mood-boosting hormones
  • Increase in cognitive alertness, focus and energy
  • Routine and forward planning
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Deep breathing and nervous system relaxation

Yoga and Pilates for mental wellbeing

I’m a yoga and Pilates teacher and studio owner, and almost every person who walks in the door comments how much better they feel mentally after a class. Usually, they’re quite surprised by this! People feel relaxed, calm and content, even if they arrived after a stressful day, or struggling with anxiety, depression or insomnia.

One of the huge benefits of yoga or Pilates is the integration of diaphragmatic breathing (deep belly breaths). Deep breaths help your nervous system to relax. Becoming aware of your breathing helps you to find flow state and become completely present with the moment. This mindful side of yoga and Pilates is brilliant at boosting mental wellbeing.

When you move mindfully (that is, with a focus on the sensations of each moment), you access the benefits of meditation. Such as reducing inflammation, lowering resting heart rate, reducing negative feelings, increasing self-awareness and positively managing stress.

These types of meditative movements have also been found in some studies to improve symptoms of PTSD to the extent that people no longer met the criteria. It’s hard to overstate how important movement is!

First steps

Starting or returning to movement and exercise is hard, especially when you’re struggling with your mental health. It feels like a monumental effort. But it’s worth it.

Perhaps start by getting up and walking around the room. Then stand and circle your shoulders backwards, swing your arms, move your head from side to side. Then take a walk round the garden or the neighbourhood. And simply build from there.

We often have an ‘all or nothing’ approach to exercise, and a lot of us have been conditioned from a young age to see exercise as a punishment for indulging. Try and reframe your understanding of movement in your mind – just five minutes of movement is powerful. Take your time. Choose something you enjoy and will look forward to. And then move for your mind.               

Find a local class

If you’d like to join us at The Well House Rawdon for a yoga or Pilates class, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’re committed to making people feel as comfortable and confident as possible, and taking the anxiety out of your first trip to the studio. Our instructors are friendly and welcoming and you’ll be well looked after.

We’re offering a pay-what-you-feel class on Wednesday 8 May, from 12.30pm to 1.30pm. This class is a slow-moving yoga class, suitable for all levels, even complete beginners. Even if you’ve never even thought about yoga before! You’ll learn the postures, breathwork and movements of yoga, and leave feeling relaxed, strong and stretched. Visit our site for more details or discover other free or low-cost physical activity groups in your area on MindWell.

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