How simply moving benefits your mental health
While it is obvious that your feelings can influence your movement, it is not as obvious that your movement can impact your feelings too.
For example, when you feel tired and sad, you may move more slowly. When you feel anxious, you may either rush around or become completely paralyzed.
But recent studies show that the connection between your brain and your body is a “two-way street” and that means movement can change your brain, too!
How exercise can improve mood disorders
Regular aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety by making your brain’s “fight or flight” system less reactive. When anxious people are exposed to physiological changes they fear, such as a rapid heartbeat, through regular aerobic exercise, they can develop a tolerance for such symptoms.
Regular exercise such as cycling or gym-based aerobic, resistance, flexibility, and balance exercises can also reduce depressive symptoms. Exercise can be as effective as medication and psychotherapies. Regular exercise may boost mood by increasing a brain protein called BDNF that helps nerve fibers grow.
For people with attention-deficit disorder (ADHD), another study showed that a single 20-minute bout of moderate-intensity cycling briefly improved their symptoms. It enhanced the participants’ motivation for tasks requiring focused thought, increased their energy, and reduced their feelings of confusion, fatigue, and depression. However, in this study, exercise had no effect on attention or hyperactivity per se.
Meditative movement has been shown to alleviate depressive symptoms. This is a type of movement in which you pay close attention to your bodily sensations, position in space, and gut feelings (such as subtle changes in heart rate or breathing) as you move. Qigong, tai chi, and some forms of yoga are all helpful for this.
For example, frequent yoga practice can reduce the severity of symptoms in post-traumatic stress disorder to the point that some people no longer meet the criteria for this diagnosis. Changing your posture, breathing, and rhythm can all change your brain, thereby reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, and leading to a feeling of well-being.
The surprising benefits of synchronizing your movements
Both physical exercise and meditative movement are activities that you can do by yourself. On their own, they can improve the way you feel. But a recent study found that when you try to move in synchrony with someone else, it also improves your self-esteem.
In 2014, psychologist Joanne Lumsden and her colleagues conducted a study that required participants to interact with another person via a video link. The person performed a standard exercise — arm curls — while the participants watched, and then performed the same movement.
Harvard Health Publishing