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How Your Physical Activity Affects Your Psychological Well-being

Engaging in physical activities brings numerous benefits to your health, a fact that cannot be disputed. Nonetheless, Erica Hornthal, LCPC, BC-DMT, a licensed clinical professional counselor and certified dance/movement therapist, wants to emphasize the significance of the correlation between motion and mental well-being. It’s not just about whether you’re active or not, but the way in which you move that plays a critical role in determining the nature of this connection. These insights form the core of her recent publication titled Body Aware, a book that draws inspiration from observing how her clients’ mental health and movement routines were influenced by the pandemic. The book also offers insights gleaned from Hornthal’s extensive experience as a dance/movement therapist.

According to Hornthal, “A substantial portion of our communication happens nonverbally. When it comes to mental health, however, we heavily rely on the verbal ten percent to unpack, release, and reframe deep-seated mental and emotional issues. Dance/movement therapy involves using motion to tap into our body’s requirements and address the root cause of our emotional states.”

Below, Hornthal shares key learnings from her book and delves into how physical movement, whether through exercise or daily activities, influences our mental and emotional well-being.

Embracing a Ground-Up Approach to Enhance Cognitive Patterns and Behaviors

To truly grasp how our movements impact our mental health, it’s imperative to recognize the profound mind-body connection, as per Hornthal. Traditional mental health interventions tend to prioritize talk therapy, affirmations, or cognitive restructuring, often overlooking this crucial aspect, she points out.

While mind-centric strategies may prove effective in isolation, Hornthal views them as adopting a top-down approach. She advocates for a body-centric, bottom-up approach that she believes is more efficacious. She explains, “When our nervous system is entrenched in a stress response, logical reasoning alone cannot alleviate it; we need to experience it sensorially.” According to her, to truly alter our thought processes, we must scrutinize how our bodily experiences contribute to and reinforce those thoughts because, surprisingly, that’s where they originate. Sensations and encounters; absorbing information through our bodies shapes these cognitive patterns and routines.”

The initial step in this ground-up approach, Hornthal suggests, is being attentive to how your body reacts in specific emotional states: “Am I tensed? Am I rigid? How expansive is my stance? What’s my pace as I navigate through the day? By observing these cues,” she continues, “and subsequently challenging or diversifying our movements at that moment, we can circumvent entrenched cognitive patterns.”

Maintaining Self-awareness during Exercise to Safeguard Your Mental Well-being

The profound mind-body connection remains active during physical exercise. As Hornthal highlights, “The more we move, the more we feel— and this isn’t always beneficial.” For instance, consider running. “If I’m constantly on the move and struggle to slow down, sprinting will not aid in breaking that cycle,” says Hornthal. She has encountered runners who, upon reflection, realized they were attempting to flee from something. The goal isn’t to relinquish activities you enjoy, she clarifies, but to engage in them purposefully and complement them with diversified movements—a fast-paced individual might benefit from a slower practice like tai chi.

The beneficial impact of an exercise regimen on mental health isn’t solely linked to its intensity. “Even activities like yoga can provoke anxiety,” Hornthal notes. “It’s not about the practice itself but how it’s approached.” As she emphasizes, it’s crucial to assess your emotional state before and after a workout to determine if your routine is detrimental. While physical exertion may cause fatigue, she asserts that it should leave you mentally invigorated and refreshed, or as if you’ve managed to shed some emotional weight.

Enhancing Emotional Resilience through Movement

Hornthal proposes that just as varying your workout routine enhances physical strength, cultivating a diverse “movement vocabulary” can bolster emotional resilience. “If I’m accustomed to moving in myriad ways,” she contends, “I may encounter unexpected challenges but will be better equipped to face them.”

She extends this analogy to an emotional context. “It involves experimenting with new movements or expanding the breadth and depth of your existing repertoire,” she suggests. This could involve detecting if you overly rely on your lower body or noticing a lack of lateral or twisting movements. She also encourages “broadening your definition of movement,” injecting more playfulness into your daily life—such as dancing while doing household chores or playing with a ball in the park.

“As children, we effortlessly engage in these movements, but as adults, we often overlook the importance of play when we need it the most,” Hornthal observes. “We either lack the freedom or convince ourselves that it’s no longer feasible. Expanding your movement vocabulary essentially fashions an embodied dictionary that accompanies you at all times.”

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