When people come to see me to help address experiences of depression or anxiety, I always ask them what role physical activity (especially outdoors) plays in their days. If the answer is “none,” or “not much,” it is often my first “prescription” to add some kind of regular physical movement to their lives.
The fact is (and an increasing number of studies have shown) that for possibly the majority of folks, regular, moderate physical activity alone is as effective for mild to moderate depression and anxiety as either antidepressant drugs or “talk therapy”. And for those who do take medication, see a therapist, or both, it can make the difference between the medication and the therapy working well, or not.
Many people experience depression at some point in their lives. Whether you have or haven’t, it might interest you to know that a whopping 25 studies have found that people who engage regularly in outdoor activities such as walking or gardening are significantly less likely to develop depression in the future, or to relapse from a previous episode.
So why does moving our bodies benefit our emotional states? There are several factors, each of which may be more or less important to a given individual.
Physically, activity that stimulates the cardiovascular system can boost levels of the neurotransmitters that influence mood. Psychologically, activity can provide a sense of accomplishment and control and a sense of feeling more “at home” in our bodies (whatever their size, shape or condition). Activity also shifts our attention away from our mind’s anxieties and concerns.
And while certain kinds of activity seem to be more effective on mood states than others (yoga and walking, for instance, appear to be especially effective), it is important to start with something you can enjoy, at a level of exertion you can tolerate, and then do it regularly—ideally most days of the week. Consider the setting, too: walking or bicycling outdoors is likely to be both more beneficial and more fun more than running on a treadmill or using an exercise bike indoors.
Then there is the element of “mindfulness,” which increases the mind-body benefits of any activity. The practice of yoga, by definition (“yoga” means “union”) is an activity which emphasizes cultivating the mind’s ability to settle itself with breath and attention, while at the same time developing flexibility, balance and strength in the body. Similarly, the practice of “mindful walking” is a way to bring balance to our whole being.
According to Steven Woolpert, LPC, who leads “Mindful Walks” in the Columbia Gorge, “mindful walking in nature brings the beauty and healing power of the natural world into mind, body, and spirit.” Instead of concentrating on achievement-oriented goals like distance, speed, or heart rate, in “mindful walking” the activity itself is the goal, and the focus is on paying close attention to the experience, moment to moment. (For a good, short introduction to “mindful walking, visit http://www.wholeliving.com/134206/mindful-walking).
Interested in learning more about how and why to “move for mood”? If so, consider attending the first of the two-class “Feeling Good” fall series of free community classes on wellness topics. The October class will meet on Monday, October 10 from 5:30-6:30 at Canyon Wren Wellness Center in Maupin. This class will explore the connections between activity and mood, and will be preceded by an optional, introductory “mindfulness walk” at 4:30, led by Steven Woolpert and starting at the Center.
In addition, everyone who attends the class will receive a free, 3-class “introductory package” gift certificate (valued at $15) for yoga classes in Maupin. If you do plan to attend the class, registration is appreciated, but not required; call Canyon Wren Wellness Center at 503-838-6144 to sign up, or learn more.
(In November, both this blog and the next “Feeling Good” class will focus on “Food for Mood”— stay tuned!)