In the first part of this two-part series, I wrote about the importance of nutrition and sleep in creating a healthy mind and body. This time, I’ll focus on movement and mindfulness. As a brief review, a balanced diet is essential as it provides the nutrients we need to manufacture brain chemicals that keep our nervous systems firing on all cylinders. And good sleep allows the body to do the overnight maintenance required to think clearly. Nutritional deficiencies and chronic lack of sleep can lead to foggy thinking, poor memory, low energy, and depressed or anxious moods.
The third element to optimal health is exercise, not because it will help you get stronger and slimmer (though it probably will), but because the chemicals released during cardiovascular exercise put you in a better mood, improve thinking skills, and enhance memory. A few years ago, Harvard Health Publishing released an article titled, “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills.” And I quote:
Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.
Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.
It can be hard to motivate, but afterwards we almost always feel better. If you struggle with overthinking, exercise is great for pulling you out of your head and into your body. Forty minutes of cardiovascular exercise three to four times a week is often enough to significantly reduce people’s depression. It’s one kind of “behavioral activation,” which basically means that movement helps counteract the common behaviors of avoidance and isolation associated with depressed individuals.
Mindfulness means being emotionally aware and present in the moment. It sounds simple, but it can be hard to achieve. Many people are distracted by their thoughts, often about tomorrow or the past, making it hard to focus on what’s right in front of them. Taking a minute or two to notice yourself and your body can go a long way toward quieting intrusive thoughts.
What do your senses tell you? What emotions are you experiencing? Are your feet cold? What is that buzzing sound? Are your shoulders tense? Are you hungry? If you’ve never done this before, set a timer for one minute and take stock of each part of your body. Then, eventually extend the time.
You can only think about one thing at a time, so directing your focus to the sensations you’re experiencing allows you to stop worrying about other things for the moment. Grabbing moments to re-center can keep anxiety from ramping up. This is one reason so many people like yoga; it requires an intense awareness of the body. You have to focus on small changes in movements to achieve and hold the poses. You are wholly in your body and not in your head.
Many apps exist to help people focus their thoughts, including Headspace, MoodTools, Breathe2Relax, MindShift, Calm, Insight Timer, and more.
Seek balance rather than perfection. Every day, try to do something for your mind, body, and spirit. If you work with your hands all day, consider engaging your mind at night, maybe read something or study a second language to make life more vibrant. If you use your mind to do complex things all day, use your evenings to attend to your body and spirit. Ask yourself, what is one small thing I could do today to move me in the direction I want to go? What one small thing could I do in this moment—maybe take a deep breath? It all adds up.
If you’ve tried to make changes without success, consider asking for help. Sometimes counseling or medication can give you the boost you need to make the changes you want. If you need someone to talk to, call MCHC Health Centers and schedule an appointment with the Behavioral Health Department at (707) 468-1010.
Serena Jones is a primary care counselor at MCHC Health Centers, a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. Learn more at mchcinc.org.