According to data published by Mintel in 2022, 78% of American exercisers responding to their survey said that mental and emotional well-being was their top reason for exercising. This marks the first time since Mintel began recording data on the fitness industry that mental and emotional health is the top motivation.
Fitness professionals know how to help someone exercise to gain muscle and improve movement quality and performance. But how do we move for well-being?
The difference between movement and exercise
The terms “exercise” and “movement” are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Exercise refers to specific activities programmed and executed towards specific outcomes. For example, a personal trainer designs a program to support a client’s goal of improved performance or a group fitness instructor designs a series of classes to improve students’ health.
Movement refers to all physical activity other than what the body does it keep itself alive at rest. That includes everything from doing the laundry to playing soccer with your kids and walking to the store. Not all movement is exercise, but all exercise is movement (Faulkner et al., 2015).
Movement for wellness refers to any additional movement one adds to their life to benefit their mental, emotional, or physical state. For some people that may include exercise, and for others, it could be other forms of movement motivated by their overall mental and emotional well-being.
How does movement affect well-being?
Movement benefits well-being outside of its obvious fitness effects. Well-being is the subjective positive experience of our lives, and movement has been shown to have many well-being benefits. That’s because a wide variety of movements have been shown to shift the effects of hormones associated with positive emotions, like serotonin and dopamine. These result in increased experiences of pleasure, accomplishment, meaning, sense of self, and other aspects of well-being far outside the movement itself (Bueckner et al, 2020).
Similarly, increases in movement have been shown to delay neurodegeneration and increase multiple brain functions (Cassihas et al., 2016), improve sleep (Wang & Boros, 2019), and can aid in physical recovery, shift mood, and improve overall health. Moving our bodies increases stress tolerance and shifts our mind’s association with the sensations of stress.
For example, an increased heart rate from working out is similar to the increase in heart rate you experience with anxiety. By learning to associate it with movement, you’re able to relate to the sensation in a different, more positive way.
To hear more about this effect, check out this interview with Kelly McGonical on the Better Than Fine podcast.
Movement can also be a vehicle for connection and community. Physical activities create an event or series of events to meet new people, connect with those you already know, and do things you like together. Joining a recreational volleyball league, taking a dance class, or hiking with your family are all examples of movement connecting with others, which increases our feelings of connection and improves emotional well-being.
The movement has even been shown to increase the likelihood of developing a sense of purpose and increasing meaning in one’s life.
How is movement for well-being different from other forms of exercise?
With so many benefits to well-being, movement goes far beyond increasing performance, boosting aesthetics, or even its physical health benefits. But how is movement for emotional well-being different from traditional exercise?
Fitness professionals are taught to program exercises towards specific objectives. As experts in specificity and adaptation, personal trainers and group fitness instructors know how to use exercise, recovery, and nutrition to reach clients’ goals.
The challenge comes when emotional well-being does not easily fit into those specific outcomes. That’s because emotional well-being is an ongoing process with many factors and no clear, objective measure. Movement practices to boost mood and emotional well-being focus more on consistency and content than the outcome.
Like mindfulness and meditation, movement to benefit well-being is a practice. One that prioritizes how the movement feels physically and emotionally, and how it affects the person’s emotional state, life satisfaction, and overall health. Those factors take priority over aesthetics or performance.
Moving for Emotional Wellbeing
When choosing movement for emotional well-being there’s almost no wrong way to go about it. If the movement is safe and unlikely to hurt the person, the focus is on what will benefit overall well-being. When working with clients who’re focusing on mental health and emotional well-being their goals are likely more subjective, such as “move more” or “feel better.”
Research has shown that when we have a positive emotional experience during or associated with movement, we’re more likely to repeat that behaviour. Meaning if we don’t like the movement or activity specifically, we like something else about it such as the people we’re doing it with, the music, being outside, etc.
Then, because it feels good, we’re more consistent, resulting in changes to our physical and mental health. Over time capacity for change increases and more likely to change other aspects of our lifestyle (Fredrickson, 2018). Because so many different forms of movement have been shown to be beneficial there are many paths one could take.
It can also be helpful to remember that some of the well-being benefits don’t happen at the moment. For example, walking and light to moderate-intensity cardiovascular activities have been shown to help a variety of mental health conditions, but someone in a depressive episode may not feel like going for a walk when they’re depressed. At these times a focus on consistency and what’s accessible can be helpful.
Here are a few coaching questions that can help you or your client:
• What movements and activities do you already like to do?
• What activities could you do with your friends or family?
• For someone looking for more connection, what activities can you use to meet new people?
• What feels accessible to you right now (even if it doesn’t necessarily feel good)?
• When has movement felt good? Is there anything similar you could try?
If you’re used to thinking about exercise in a structured way, the movement for emotional well-being can feel vague and unspecific. Yet not every client is ready or interested in structured exercise. For those clients or individuals looking for overall betterment of life hiking, cycling, playing football with their kids, dancing, and going for walks may have a more direct improvement on wellbeing and lead to greater positive changes in the long term.
Buecker, S., Simacek, T., Ingwersen, B., Terwiel, S., & Simonsmeier, B. A. (2020). Physical activity and subjective well-being in healthy individuals: a meta-analytic review. Health psychology review, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2020.1760728
Cassilhas, R. C., Tufik, S., & de Mello, M. T. (2016). Physical exercise, neuroplasticity, spatial learning and memory. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 73(5), 975–983. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00018-015-2102-0
Faulkner, G., Hefferon, K., & Mutrie, N. (2015). Putting positive psychology into motion through physical activity. In S. Joseph (ed.), Positive psychology in practice: promoting human flourishing in work, health, education, and everyday life (pp. 207–222). Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118996874.ch12
Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2018). Reflections on positive emotions and upward spirals. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 194-199.
Schwarzer, R., & Warner, L. M. (2013). Perceived Self-Efficacy and its Relationship to Resilience. In S. Prince-Embury & D. H. Saklofske (eds.), Resilience in children, adolescents, and adults (pp. 139–150). New York, NY: Springer New York. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-4939-3_10
Wang, F., & Boros, S. (2019). The effect of physical activity on sleep quality: a systematic review. European journal of physiotherapy, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1080/21679169.2019.1623314