May 12th, 2020

How Movement Plays a Role in Positive Mental Health

Performance Physiologist, Author & Researcher Greg Wells explores how physical activity can help COVID-19 anxiety.
Mental Health

In this unsettling time, it’s normal to be experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and grief. It’s unusual for us to be separated from our loved ones, from our friends and our colleagues. Humans are inherently social creatures. But we really are all in this together and there are tools available to us (yes, even from home) that can help keep mental health fitness strong during this period of uncertainty. The best part – all you need is yourself.
Last year I was giving a presentation at a school on how exercise, nutrition and sleep can positively impact our mental performance and health. As I was nearing the end of the presentation a girl sitting at the front of the auditorium began crying. I finished the talk quickly so that I could offer my support and make sure she was ok. After a few minutes she calmed down, looked at me and said she wished I had been there a year ago - her friend had died by suicide and the girl felt that, had this friend been provided the tools I’d spoken about during my presentation, perhaps she could have been saved. I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest. From that point forward, I committed to always speaking about mental health during my presentations, opening this issue up for conversation at every opportunity from that moment on.
As a society, we don’t yet understand mental health. We don’t treat mental illnesses effectively and even worse, people with mental illnesses are often stigmatized. Fortunately, we are beginning to understand the links between mental health, exercise, sleep and nutrition, which if used effectively, can lower your risk of mental health related illnesses or, if you’re already experiencing struggles, can help you to better control those feelings.  
Dr. Long Zhai from the Department of Epidemiology and Health Statistics at Qingdao University Medical College in China conducted a study exploring the links between sedentary behaviour and depression[1]. He had his team analyzed results from over 110,000 participants across 13 research studies and found that that being sedentary (sitting or lying down for periods of time), television viewing, and prolonged computer use were significantly related to risk of depression. Well, here we are in 2020 and suddenly sitting down, bingeing Netflix, sleeping-in have become a very real part of our new “quarantine” lifestyles. That’s why movement is more important now than ever before.



"Just remember - you don’t need to do much to reap the rewards. You don’t need to run a marathon each day or commit to doing Olympic-inspired sprints. You just need to get outside and go for a five-minute walk."

Now, let’s be clear – like many of you, I’m a huge fan of technology and all that it can do for our world. BUT, I also believe that we have to learn how to use it in such a way that does not compromise our health, or that of our loved ones. Students for example, should be given movement breaks during the day at school. In business we need to stretch 20 seconds for every 20 minutes of standing (who can admit to following this standard?). We need to give ourselves tech-free times during the day. For example, my brilliant colleague Dr. James Rouse has a basket where he and his family drop their mobile devices when they come home.
It’s clear that physical inactivity may be a primary cause of mental illness, however the mind-body connection can work in a positive way as well. Exercise and physical activity can be used as a treatment for some people who are struggling with depression[2,3] in addition to medications and or psychological therapy. Research shows us that when people are exercising or being more physically active, exercise appears to have a benefit. Research also shows that exercise has the potential to be as effective as traditional psychological treatments or anti-depressants. When exercise is added to anti-depressant therapy there is a moderate additional benefit (although, you should always speak to your doctor about what will work best for your own situation.) But if the exercise stops, the benefits don’t seem to last. So, if you want to be mentally healthy, exercise has to be a part of life - forever.
When you’re struggling with your mental health, it can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders and simply getting out of bed can be a challenge. Exercising in those moments might feel almost impossible. Just remember - you don’t need to do much to reap the rewards. You don’t need to run a marathon each day or commit to doing Olympic-inspired sprints. You just need to get outside and go for a five-minute walk. Or, do a few pushups. And if even that seems like a stretch, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Start small by inviting a friend to go for a walk with you (respecting social distancing parameters, of course) or commit to calling your family while you’re on your walk (taking your mind off the actual exercise part).
And If you want to amplify the benefits of exercise even more, you can add meditation to your exercise routine. Meditation is especially beneficial for people with anxiety and depression[4] and can help you to break out of negative patterns of thinking and generally reduce symptoms of both depression and anxiety[5].
It’s truly incredible to realize the potential for improvement in our lives simply by moving more. Just standing up changes the way your body uses energy, circulates blood, and also how you think! But taking advantage of this will require a paradigm shift. We need to incorporate movement into our daily lives. So, let’s get moving!

GREG WELLS, Ph.D., is a performance physiologist, a researcher in translational medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children, and the CEO of Wells Performance, a global consulting firm. The author of The Ripple Effect and Rest Refocus Recharge, Wells is a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail, CBC, CTV, TSN, and newspapers and magazines around the world. He lives in Toronto with his family. Learn more at​