By Taylor Guigue
From the time I was old enough to have a meaningful conversation with my sister, I learned that it is possible for humans to feel more than just happiness or sadness, and to be hurt in more ways than a scrape on the knee from falling off your bicycle. I saw my sister staying home from school, claiming to be sick. I saw her avoid crowds and social situations, finding comfort alone in her bedroom instead. I saw my best friend as this amazing person who I looked up to and envied, and borrowed too many clothes from, and I also saw a person who was distressed, who looked to be constantly worried about seemingly unimportant things, and whose day was impacted on how she felt mentally. I think I always knew that my sister suffered from anxiety; not that I knew its official name. However, I lacked crucial knowledge surrounding the mental illness, and most importantly how to fix it. Me, being the little sister, wanted to find that magic Band-Aid; that “ah-ha” thing to make the bad feelings go away. This Band-Aid, I later learned, was something that had to be created and practiced by my sister herself.
Starting at an early age, my sister and I were both enrolled in competitive dance, but because she is five years older, she was in a much higher grade, and our schedules were almost opposite. This is why it was so cool to me when I reached about 13, and my dance classes fell later on in the evening: the same time as my sister. I vividly remember passing her classroom on the way to my studio, and seeing this calm, cool, and collected creature. This person was working hard in the present moment, and focusing on bettering herself. She doesn’t know it, but in the dance studio is the happiest and most at peace I’ve ever seen her. This is probably the first time I started to draw the link between a physical activity such as dance, and mental wellness. The moral of this is not that we should all get some ballet shoes and enroll in the first dance class we can. Rather, stemming from my own experiences, I want to explore how moving your body, pirouettes or not, helps to reduce anxiety levels and promote mental wellness.
Exercising to Reduce Anxiety...It's a Thing
We are always told to take care of our bodies; to make sure we are eating our vegetables, getting enough sleep, and staying active. Rarely we are told how to take care of our minds; something super important if we expect to be able to do everyday activities like going to school, doing homework, or hanging out with friends. The good news is that these two actually impact one another. Your mom and your gym teacher’s rants about how you should “get off the phone and go outside” might actually ring true in helping your mind feel the best too. In fact, studies show that physical activity is extremely beneficial for people struggling with anxiety.
Top 5 Benefits of Exercise on Mental Wellness
1. It makes our cells happy
Regular exercise increases the strength and function of the cells in our body. In particular, it helps the mitochondria, (a part of the cell) ensure that all the systems in the body are healthy, energetic, and working well. When we keep our cells happy, every system in the body benefits, including our brain.
2. It makes the brain feel good
Regular exercise allows for the release of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These help to improve brain function and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.
3. It helps us practice our “ohm”
Physical activity has a meditative affect on the body and can help cultivate mindfulness. It gives us the chance to take a break from our busy world and thoughts, by allowing us to devote time to focusing on ourselves and our activity, whether that means sweating it out on a run or perfecting our technique in a sport we love.
4. It makes us feel pretty good about ourselves
Getting in regular exercise goes as far as to improve our confidence and self-image. By improving at our sport of choice or pushing for a faster race time, our ability to feel pride in our accomplishments and to not care as much about the outside world heightens. Exercise empowers us to feel stronger, faster, and healthier on the outside, which does wonders for how we feel on the inside.
5. It gives us a safe spot to let it all out
Physical activity can provide a healthy and effective outlet to the stresses of everyday life, as well as the troubles that come along with anxious thoughts, feelings, and symptoms. It offers a safe, alternative way to release built up tension, which helps our bodies, and in turn our minds.
5 Tips to Add Movement into Your Day:
1. Choose to walk or bike for short distances where you would normally drive
A couple extra steps a day, or a cycle to work can do wonders for how we feel from the inside out. Turn this into a small goal for yourself and see how many steps you can get in a day.
2. Get involved in a sports team
Whether sports mean an intramural volleyball team at lunch time, or competitive soccer after school, teams are amazing at providing a way to exercise in a fun environment. An added bonus is the social support system that comes along with it. Not a fan of organized sports? Check your local community center or gym for fun group fitness classes.
3. No membership? No problem.
While the gym is often the most looked at option for adding exercise into your life, it is not the only one. If the gym isn’t for you but you’re still looking to get a killer workout in, try an app! Many fitness apps like Aaptiv, Charity Miles, and Sworkit, can be downloaded directly to smartphones for free or super cheap. These apps can get you in shape while allowing you to reap the benefits of exercise on mental wellness. The best part is, most of these apps do not require a gym. Adding movement into your day has never been easier.
About the Author
Taylor Guigue currently studies Political Science full time at Carleton University, with the goal of pursuing law school when she completes her degree. Outside of school, Taylor has a particular interest in fitness and wellness. She plans to pursue a career as a lawyer and continue her passion for fitness and advocating for its impact on mental wellness.