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The Chemistry of Exercise and Why it's an Essential Ingredient in Mental Health

In my last blog I discussed the seven main therapeutic techniques I use in my counselling practice: physical activity, meditation, cognitive-behavioural therapy, journaling, hobbies, social activities, and singing. Yes, singing. We will not break into song during session (unless you want to), but singing has proven to be an effective technique to release tension, strengthen your voice (literally), and increase confidence. With self-esteem being at the root of much struggle, singing can enhance our sense of self and increase our courage, which can translate into a variety of areas in our lives, such as public speaking and using your voice in both personal and professional relationships. It’s when we keep things buried deep inside that causes the struggle and stress to build. So yes, singing can be a valuable and effective technique. More on that down the road.

Today, I’m going to break down each therapeutic technique, one blog at a time, because I think each strategy should be explained in greater detail. One tool may be just the right fit for one person, and yet, completely useless for another. Sometimes it’s a variety of techniques that result in the perfect program. And yet for others, the right solution is often times a piece of one strategy and a piece of another. The idea here is to provide you with the tools that have been most effective in my practice over the last thirteen years, so that you can find what works best for you.


"Sometimes it's a variety of techniques that result in the perfect program."


In this blog I’d like to discuss the value of PHYSICAL ACTIVITY, and why I use it with clients to work through stress, anxiety and depression.

We all know the general benefits: sleep better, release stress, increase self-esteem, making us feel strong and powerful. However, I’d like to turn toward the chemistry to show you, from a biological perspective, what’s happening inside your body (which includes your brain by the way), and why it’s such an integral part of our mental health.

1. SERATONIN - This neurotransmitter commonly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness, and is the neurotransmitter targeted by anti-depressants. However, we have a way to increase our serotonin levels all on our own. Plain and simple, physical activity increases serotonin levels. This is why we feel good after a workout. I know consciously my body has not changed immediately after my forty-five (thirty) minutes run (jog). Okay, fine. It’s more like a brisk stroll with the ladies of Golden Girls. Yet as I get undressed in the change room afterwards and look in the mirror, I think, ‘Dang girl! Not too bad at all.’ This is the effect of serotonin.

2. NEURAL GROWTH - Physical activity improves blood flow to the brain and elevates the production of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a neurotransmitter that can stimulate the production of new brain cells. Exercise also promotes changes in the brain such as reduced inflammation and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being.

3. ENDORPHINS - We’ve all heard this one before. When we are physically active, our body releases endorphins, which enhances our feelings of well-being.

4. DOPAMINE - In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter - a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. Dopamine plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behaviour. Exercise boosts our dopamine, which affects our motivation, focus and attention.

All of these serve to dull pain, lighten mood and relieve stress. Exercise also relieves tension in the body and relaxes your muscles. It normalizes sleep, known to have protective effects on the brain. When we are stressed, overwhelmed, or threatened, our nervous system jumps into action, setting off reactions such as sweating, dizziness, and a racing heart. Physical activity mimics the same physical reactions. It’s like exposure treatment. People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.

So, I ask you. Is this enough of an argument to get moving? You don’t have to choose something you don’t like. Some people love yoga. I am not one of them despite trying it half a dozen times. I would rather jab sharp needles into my eyeballs while walking across hot coals than do yoga. That said, I love to dance class, play tennis, or swim. You need to find an activity that you enjoy. Even going outside for a walk with your favourite music is great. Some like to work out with a buddy to include a social element, which can make the time more enjoyable. Try out a few different activities to see which is the best fit for you. Just get moving. You’ll thank yourself for it.

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