How You Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health—3 Surprising Findings From a Movement Therapist

Photo: Getty Images/ Hinterhaus Productions

Physical activity is good for you, there’s no arguing with that. But Erica Hornthal, LCPC, BC-DMT, a board-certified dance/movement therapist and licensed clinical professional counselor, wants you to pay more attention to your relationship between movement and mental health. That’s because it’s not just a matter of if, but how, you’re moving that determines whether the connection is positive or negative. It’s the focus of her new book, Body Aware, which was partially inspired by seeing how her clients’ movement practices and mental health were impacted by the pandemic. It also shares learnings from Hornthal’s years as a dance/movement therapist.

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“Most of our communication is nonverbal,” she says. “And yet, when it comes to mental health, we rely on the 10 percent of our communication that is verbal to uncover, release, and rewire these huge mental and emotional issues. Dance/movement therapy is about using movement to tap into our body’s needs and get at the root cause of why we’re feeling what we’re feeling.”

Below, Hornthal shares the biggest takeaways from her book, and how movement—whether as part of exercise or daily life—plays a role in our overall mental and emotional health.

Taking a “bottoms up” approach to our mental health can build better thought patterns and behaviors

To truly comprehend how the way we move impacts our mental health, we have to understand just how deep the mind-body connection runs, says Hornthal. This acknowledgement is often lacking in traditional mental health interventions that focus on talk therapy, affirmations, or changing thought patterns, she says.

While sometimes those mind-focused strategies can work well on their own, Hornthal says, she sees them as taking a “top-down” approach, instead of the body-first, “bottom-up” approach that she’s found more helpful. “When our nervous system is stuck in a stress response, we can’t reason our way out of it—we have to feel our way,” she says. “To really change our thoughts, we have to look at how our bodies contribute to and support those thoughts, because, believe it or not, that’s actually where they originate. It’s sensations, it’s experiences; taking in information through the body creates those thought patterns and habits.”

The first step in this “bottom-up” approach, Hornthal says, is noticing how your body is responding when you feel a certain way: “Am I tense? Am I rigid? How much space am I taking up? What’s the rhythm of how I’m moving through the day? If we can start to notice that,” she says, “and then start to challenge it, or expand the way we’re moving in that moment, we can circumvent the mind patterns.”

Exercise without self-awareness can negatively impact your mental health

This deep mind-body connection doesn’t turn off when you’re in workout mode—in fact, as Hornthal says, “when we move more, we feel more—and that’s not always a positive thing.” Take running, for instance. “If I’m on the go, go, go, and I have a hard time slowing down, sprinting is not actually going to help me change that pattern,” Hornthal says. “It’s just going to perpetuate the go, go go,” adding that she’s worked with runners who, upon reflection, realized they were running away from something. The idea is not to give up the exercise you love, she says, but to approach it with more intention, and “to implement other spectrums of movement”—which for the “on-the-go” runner may be something slower-paced, like tai chi.

That’s not to say that how beneficial a form of exercise is to your mental health is correlated to its intensity level alone. “Even yoga can lead to anxiety,” Hornthal says. “It’s not the practice, it’s the execution.”

How do you know if your current fitness routine is detrimental to your mental health? Hornthal suggests doing a pre- and post-workout test, taking notice of how you feel before and after your workout. While exercise may leave you physically exhausted, she says, it should make you feel emotionally energized and recharged, or like you’ve been able to release something.

Movement can build emotional resilience

Hornthal says that just as changing up your exercise routine can make your body stronger, creating a “robust movement vocabulary” can also build emotional resilience. “If I’m used to moving all around,” she says, “if something comes at me, I may not be expecting it, but I’m more able to get back on my feet to handle whatever is coming.”

The same logic applies on an emotional level, she says. “It’s about trying new movement, or expanding the reach or the range of the movement you currently do,” she says, which could mean identifying if you are only using your lower body, or noticing that you’re often moving forward and backward but never twisting or moving side to side. She also suggests “expanding your definition of movement,” by incorporating more playfulness in everyday life—like dancing while you do chores, or kicking a ball around the park.

“We do these movements as kids, and then as we get older, we don’t have time for play when we need it most,” she says. “We don’t have movement at our disposal, or we’re like ‘I’m not free anymore—I can’t do that.’ So having a robust movement vocabulary is literally building the embodied dictionary we carry with us.”

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