By Kori Astle
Most people know that exercising can help you improve your health, reduce stress, and stabilize mood. However, as with all good things, when used improperly or excessively you can actually cause more harm to your body and mind through misusing exercise. When patients first arrive at Avalon their relationship with exercise is often very clouded. I hear the patients talk about how they used to enjoy movement but their eating disorder twisted exercise as a way to burn more calories, isolate, and avoid being in their bodies and feelings. Learning to shift away from these thoughts and establishing a balanced mind-body connection allows the patients to enjoy the benefits of exercise in a healthy way.
The Mind-Body Connection with Exercise
Our minds and bodies are not their own entities. In fact, they are so closely intertwined, that when something happens in the brain (stress) we experience strong physical responses (butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, racing heart). Understanding and establishing a good mind-body relationship is essential to obtaining an overall wellness. Movement is a great way to integrate mind and body, particularly when they feel disconnected.
So how do you start to establish a good relationship with exercise?
Find what you enjoy. Whether it’s dance, running, walks, strength training, zumba, basketball, or yoga, etc., it’s vital that allow yourself to thrive with movement that you genuinely love doing. Exercise should not be a chore, it should be something that improves your mood and is fun to do. Physical activity time can also be supportive for it’s social involvement, time spent interacting with others and make new friends that share common interests. Social involvement is a key factor supporting recovery.
Mix it up. Trying new activities is a great way to establish a new and positive relationship with exercise. Learning new skills is a great way to check in with your body and feel it’s capabilities. Recently, we took our patients on a downhill skiing trip, which was a new experience for almost all of our patients and staff. Everyone had such a great time that we are planning another trip soon! Mixing up your choice of activities also prevents you from getting stuck in the same routines (read obsessions) and styles of movement.
Listen to your body and take breaks. Your body is an amazing regulator and will tell you exactly what it needs and is capable of-if you tune in and listen. This is a large focus particularly for my patients who are runners. They focus so much on a distance, time, or calories, and are so “in the zone” that they don’t recognize when their bodies are telling them to stop, resulting in injuries or running for long time/distances. Being aware of how fast your heart is beating, how rapid your breaths are, and doing a mental muscle body scan are great ways to establish the mind-body connection. Taking frequent breaks also helps to stay present throughout the activity.
Practice, Practice, Practice. It is not easy to maintain a mind-body connection through exercise especially if you are not used to doing it. Take the example of the runners. The first few times I would run with them they would try to push the pace or express guilt for not going faster or longer. It was not easy for them to focus on their body signals. But through repeated experiential practice of being present, slowing the pace, and taking breaks, they are able to feel confident in their ability to run in a healthy way for their bodies. I have found that yoga is a great place to start practicing mindfulness techniques that can then be applied to other physical activities.