When you think about using activity to improve your health, cardio and strength exercises are likely the first things that come to mind. However, there's also a strong connection between your physical health and your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Known as the mind-body connection, the exercises that strengthen this relationship are just as important as the ones that get your heart pumping.
"The breath is a powerful tool and is intricately linked with our physical fitness, as well as our experience of anxiety and overall mental health," explains movement and breathwork coach Luke Jones. "Belly breathing helps to stimulate the vagus nerve, shifting the body into a more [restful] state. It initiates a relaxation response, potentially dampening our experience of anxiety." Jones also recommends nasal breathing, which has been shown to calm and relax the body, slow breathing and promote digestion. "If it's not something you already do, switching to nasal-only, belly breathing could be a great step towards managing anxiety and regaining control."
Getting Started: Jones suggests starting with 1:1 breathing, which is breathing in and out through the nose at a similar pace. "Start with three seconds in, three seconds out, gradually building up to 4:4, 5:5, 6:6., et cetera. When you hit a number that starts to become difficult, drop down one or two numbers and continue at this pace for five to 10 minutes. By the end of the session, you'll likely feel an enhanced sense of calm and relaxation."
"Journaling is accessible, low-cost and can benefit you across many different aspects of your life," says self-development author Suzanne Wylde. "You may know about the psychological benefits of journaling, but did you realize that it also has a powerful impact on your body?"
Research has found that writing about stressful or emotional events can improve both physical and mental health. Journaling provides an opportunity to work through negative feelings, promotes positive self-talk and allows you to clear your mind by putting your thoughts down on paper.
"To get the most out of your journaling, do it by hand," Wylde advises." This helps us connect to our emotions more and handwriting has been shown to increase activity in certain areas of the brain in a way that is similar to meditation."
Getting Started: If you're new to it, commit to just five minutes of daily journaling. If you're having trouble thinking of what to write, try answering a few questions, such as:
- How am I feeling right now?
- Why do I feel this way?
- How do I want to feel?
Yoga & Moving Meditation
Life strategist David Richards suggests the combination of yoga and meditation can help create a healthy, lasting mind-body connection. "Yoga teaches us to be present; we learn to 'meditate' during the yoga flow," he explains. "Being present simply means keeping our awareness and focus on what we are doing as we are doing it. If you're exerting yourself and breathing heavy, you might start thinking about when the class will be over or what you're going to eat after. [When this happens,] gently bring your awareness back to your breath and continue on with the yoga practice."
Richards explains that, like yoga, meditation is intended to be a period of intense focus. "In yoga, your body is moving and you want your mind to be 'still' or present," he says. "When you're staying present during a yoga class, we sometimes call that a 'moving meditation.' In meditation, your body is still but your awareness—that beacon inside your mind that directs your focus—is engaged. Meditation is the pathway where we learn to control our minds." Meditation has also been shown to reduce levels of cortisol, the hormone that helps the body deal with stress.
Getting Started: If you're new to yoga, starting with a class taught by a certified instructor will ensure you're doing the poses properly and getting the most out of each flow. If that's not an option, check out the wide variety of beginner workouts on YouTube.
Brian Kiselstein, founder of Think Healthy Fitness, suggests that one of the best mind-body activities is just outside your front door. "You may be looking for unique or new exercises, but I like to highlight the benefits of walking outdoors for both body and mind," he describes. "Walking can leave us feeling refreshed and recharged, even after exerting a ton of energy on a long walk. Our minds are free to wander or turn off, and the fresh air helps [it settle] down. The movement restricts how much our hands can do and we are just left to walk, breathe and think."
Getting Started: Group walks in nature have been shown to lower depression and stress, while enhancing mental well-being. If walking isn't your thing, swimming, biking, jogging or even a strength training session at the playground can provide similar benefits. Start with outdoor workouts of varying distances a few times a week and see how it affects your mood and sense of well-being.
Engaging in activities that reduce stress and quiet your mind not only make life more enjoyable, but also directly connect to your physical health. Years of research have shown that a happier mind results in a happier body.