In 2018, my blog focused primarily on anxiety. This year I am thinking more about movement and mental health. A good starting place is identifying the minimal metrics for movement and how achieving these metrics can support mental health.
So, I spent some time reviewing the most recent studies for exercise.
What is definitive?
Exercise reduces dementia and reduces all causes of death. For mental health in general, cognitive functioning exercises in studies don’t always show that it is helpful. They have not shown that they decline cognitive functioning. Ok. Exercise dose not always helps to be smarter. But for depression, the research is clear: exercise is an excellent therapy on its own and in conjunction with other therapies. Exercise increases neuroplasticity, improves how the autonomic and endocrine systems respond to stress, improves sleep, improves self-esteem, …the list goes on. So, we can definitely say now that exercise is good for both the brain and body.
How much movement do the studies say is needed?
When people exercise three times a week for 12 to 24 weeks, there is a dramatic reduction of depression, and if the exercise continues, there is a reduction in recurrence. That sounds great! And… those people were selected and paid to be in the studies.
Beyond the studies and in my office
When people can feel that movement improves how they feel, then it becomes a useful tool for treating energy and mental clarity in the moment. I believe that part of treating depression, mental health, pain, and other diseased states, is to provide people with tools that move them towards resilience moment to moment. If a person has a tool that can help them feel better now, today, or later today, we can build experiences that move us away from depression, fatigue, low self-esteem, anxiety, pain, or whatever their points of suffering are. Why does this work? When people can experience change that they are in control of, and learn the value of the process, they have a model of change that can then apply to other things in their life.
But how do you actually get someone who is depressed moving?
At my last PESI training in Richmond, VA, I posed this question to the group of around 90. I like to start with the smallest possible metric, in large part because it is doable. And since I am all about being able to feel what’s going on in the body, I first asked everyone to do an experiment. You, the reader, can do the same experiment now.
The Minimal Movement Experiment
1. Check-in and rate your energy level at this moment, using the scale below.
Now stand up. Choose one of the three possible movements that you will do four times. Here is a video of me squatting, marching and flapping my hands, in case you want to see what I am talking about.
Chair squats – have a chair behind you and sit down as though you are going to take a seat. Just as the chair touches you, stand back up;
March in place – with your knees coming up as high as it is comfortable; or
Overhead hand clap – raise both arms in the air and bring your hands together comfortably over your head. Clap your hands together if that sounds like fun.
Remember one of these, just four times.
3. Sit back down and re-rate your energy level.
The majority of people in my training reported feeling at least 10% better. So, if you were initially at 6 (out of 10), you might now be at 7… in less than 30 seconds! What could you do with 10% more energy? Do you get up to snack or drink coffee at work when you might just need to move your body a little bit to get some energy and mental clarity?
Where can the experiment be done?
Certainly, YOU can do this experiment anywhere: at the office, in the bathroom, when you get off the couch from watching TV. Additionally, you can try this experiment with clients who present with fatigue or who are kinesics learners. I offer it as a mindfulness exercise for people with childhood history of trauma, as a way got them to learn to listen to their bodies. It is a small enough dose that it is unlikely to make fatigue worse. Maybe nothing is noticed, but they tried something new. I also like to give it to my clients as homework (“Since the exercise was helpful in my office, I would like you to try it when you have been sitting for more than three hours.”)
Throughout the year, I will write more about how to use movement as a way to improve energy and mental clarity.
Medina JL, Jacquart J, Smits JAJ. Optimizing the Exercise Prescription for Depression: The Search for Biomarkers of Response. Curr Opin Psychol. 2015;4:43-47. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.02.003. Link to study.
Belvederi Murri M, Ekkekakis P, Magagnoli M, et al. Physical Exercise in Major Depression: Reducing the Mortality Gap While Improving Clinical Outcomes. Front psychiatry. 2018;9:762. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00762. Link to Study.