Summer in the Pacific Northwest is a coveted time of year. As the days get longer and the sun shines more and brighter, the urge to get outside and move becomes greater, too. Who can question why? Festivals abound, there are countless natural wonders to explore, the weather is warm and dry, and it’s light until 10 o’clock at night. The massive influx of vitamin D into the system doesn’t hurt either.

Even before COVID-19 caused so many of us to start climbing the walls of our enclosed spaces, this was the case. And now that the coronavirus has had the nation sheltering at home for three months, and things are starting to open up in Oregon and beyond, the desire to be out in the world is that much stronger. Even though the festivals, events, and gatherings that usually have us hopping from one to another all summer long are not happening this year (tearful emoji face), there is still ample outdoor activity to enjoy - albeit six feet from others -  while doing the body good.

Move it, move it

I have been a competitive Masters runner several years. I compete with one of the top ranked Masters running clubs in the nation, the Bowerman Track Club. And in addition to the good I know it does for me physically, I personally find movement of the physical body to be an emotionally healing and spiritual endeavor, too. 

Now I know that it is much easier for those of us that “like to move it move it” (where were you in 1993?!) to stick to a regular exercise routine. But, it really is essential for optimum health to find a way to incorporate movement into your life on a regular basis, and not just for the benefit of the physical body.

Yes, exercise does the body good...while at the same time soothing the mind and nourishing soul.

Good for the Body

This might seem like a no-brainer. Yeah, exercise is good for the body. Most of us are aware of the benefits of exercise for the heart and lungs (cardiopulmonary system) and know that weight bearing exercise is good for our bones. But how about the benefits of resistance training for the maintenance of lean muscle tissue? 

Sarcopenia is the loss of lean muscle tissue that begins after the age of 30. When we lose lean muscle tissue it leads to the weakening of the bones, a sluggish metabolism, fat/weight gain, and an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Any of that sound familiar? 

Due to the negative effects of lean muscle tissue loss, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults 18-64 years of age do strengthening activities involving major muscle groups at least twice a week in their Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health. It doesn't matter if you're in your 90s, you can start a program of resistance training today to dramatically increase your lean muscle tissue and promote your physical health. This can be as easy as using 2 pound weights or doing air squats

The benefits of resistance, or strength training, include:

  • increased bone density, reducing risk for osteoporosis;

  • increased metabolism, supporting weight management;

  • improved cognitive function, especially thinking and learning in older adults;

  • management of chronic conditions - may reduce symptoms such as back pain, arthritis, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and depression;

  • enhanced quality of life - better balance may reduce risk of falls and allow for maintenance of independence with age.

What else does resistance training entail, you ask?

Strength training can be done at home using your body weight alone (pullups, pushups, planks, squats) or with equipment such as free weights and resistance bands. Of course, it can also be done at a gym with the use of free weights and weight machines perhaps even with the guidance of a personal trainer. You’ll begin to see results by incorporating resistance training into your life for 20-30 minutes, two to three times a week.

For those over the age of 40 (and individuals of any age with chronic conditions), it’s important to consult with a physician (even if it’s not me) before beginning a strength training or aerobic exercise program if it’s been a while since you were active. And though many people do resistance training on their own, working with a personal trainer or exercise physiologist can be a great way to tailor your strength training program to your specific needs and wellness goals.

Good for the Mind

The benefits of movement on mental health has been garnering more and more interest in recent years. Exercise has a dramatic effect on upregulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, and research shows that regular exercise can support emotional wellbeing. Even one session of exercise can dramatically improve your mental state. 

I suffered one of the worst injuries of my running career last year with a gnarly case of patella tendonitis. I had to take seven months off from my regular running routine, and I noticed that the forced hiatus significantly affected my mood. My beloved wife confirmed this, reporting that I was more irritable and cranky than usual, so I had to find other ways to exercise - stat. I swam, hiked, lifted weights, and played table tennis. I eventually started doing serious weight training, specifically heavy squats, and ironically, that was what finally healed my knee so that I could begin running again. Thankfully, over the past six months, I have been able to resume my regular running routine, and I have continued resistance training two to three times a week as well. I’m feeling good - both physically and mentally. Just ask Pam.

In addition to enhancing the mood and increasing energy, other important ways movement affects mental health include:

  • Reducing stress and deepening relaxation;

  • Improving mental clarity, learning, insight, memory, and cognitive function;

  • Enhancing intuition, creativity, assertiveness, and enthusiasm for life;

  • Improving social health and relationships;

  • Increasing self esteem;

  • Deepening spiritual connection.

Not bad. We’d be hard pressed to find someone who does not need a boost in at least one of those areas if not more!

But how about the effect of exercise on more severe mental health conditions like major depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders, dementia, and schizophrenia?

Exercise is now considered as important as pharmacological approaches in the treatment of chronic mental illness by some mental health professionals in part due to its potential to promote neurogenesis (creation of neurons) in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for emotion regulation, learning, and memory. This may be especially true for individuals suffering from depression.

In fact, a research study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry (2018) found that exercise has a vital role in the treatment of clinically depressed patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Stating that such individuals tend to live 10 years less than non-depressed individuals, due to increased incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke, the authors assert:

There is wide agreement that current research and clinical efforts to address these issues are arguably not proportional to their gravity. There is an urgent need to develop and implement novel treatments that are effective to treat symptoms of depression and, at the same time, are beneficial for physical health. One such intervention is physical exercise, which is increasingly recognized as both an antidepressant agent and a potent tool to delay mortality.

And yet? Despite the evidence of higher mortality rates among individuals with mental illness due to increased physical susceptibility to illness, 60 percent of adults and nearly half of school aged children diagnosed with mental illness in the United States face barriers to treatment. What this means is that they get no treatment at all. Hence, the necessity of regular exercise for those affected by mental health challenges and conditions. Lives depend on it - in more ways than one.

Good for the Soul

Movement of the physical body can also be a powerful spiritual experience. Many of the religious and spiritual traditions of the world incorporate movement in devotional practices and prayer whether in the form of standing, sitting, kneeling, swaying, bowing, prostrating, or dancing. Walking meditation, ritual pilgrimage, and ecstatic dance are also deeply rooted in spiritual practices dating back thousands of years. Other exercise modalities like yoga, tai chi, and qigong have their roots in contemplative or devotional practices. Intertwined with mindfulness and mediation, these movement artforms have been adopted in the west by throngs of devotees searching for greater wellbeing of mind and body and by seekers looking to connect to higher levels of consciousness.

Yoga, for example, offers a great physical workout while simultaneously quieting the mind. Kundalini yoga and other forms of yoga asana (postures) done for deeper purposes are good examples of movement as a spiritual practice. The mental focus gained can lead to a heightened ability for concentration with the potential to connect with higher aspects of the self. As such, it can be a spiritual experience. The true purpose of yoga asana, practiced by ancient yogis, was in fact to prepare the body to sit for extended periods of time in meditation on the Divine. 

Essentially, however, any movement done with intention can be viewed as a spiritual exercise that confers benefits to the body, mind, and spirit - even the mundane practice of running. Personally, I love running alone while doing breathing meditation. When I enter my “zone” in a race or on a routine run, I synchronize my breath with my stride and incorporate a mantra, and it can feel like a completely transcendental experience.

How about you? What exercise or movement activity puts you in a meditative-like state, or the “zone”, possibly bringing you to a higher level of consciousness?

Whatever your answer to this question - do it on a regular basis. And your body, mind, and spirit will thank you.