While our feelings influence our movement, it is not as obvious that our movement can impact our feelings too. When we feel tired and sad, we may move more slowly. When we feel anxious, we may either rush around or become completely paralyzed. But studies show that the connection between our brain and our body is a “two-way street” and that means movement can change our brain.
How exercise can improve mood disorders
Regular aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety by making our brain’s “fight or flight” system less reactive. 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), studies 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 energy, and reduced their feelings of confusion, fatigue, and depression.
Meditative movement has been shown to alleviate depressive symptoms. This is a type of movement in which pay close attention to our bodily sensations, position in space, and gut feelings (such as subtle changes in heart rate or breathing) as we move. Qigong, tai chi, and some forms of yoga are all helpful for this. 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 our posture, breathing, and rhythm can all change our brain, thereby reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, and leading to a feeling of well-being.
Movement therapies are often used as adjunctive treatments for depression and anxiety when mental effort, psychotherapy, or medication is not enough. When we are too exhausted to use thought control strategies such as focusing on the positive, or looking at the situation from another angle, movement can come to the rescue. By working out, going on a meditative walk by ourself, or going for a synchronized walk with someone, we may gain access to a “back door” to the mental changes that we desire without having to “psych ourself” into feeling better.