This blog post is in honor of artist Susan O’Malley who passed away suddenly last week. I did not know of her until my cousin shared this article on Facebook. I was instantly inspired by her work and her mission to “make art that connects us to each other”. Some of her art is featured in this blog. Please enjoy and if you are inspired to, support her work.
More and more, research is emerging that reinforces the importance of self-care – not as an act of selfishness – but to provide the critical nourishment that enables our relationships, our communities, our world to grow strong.
When we are mentally depleted and physically fatigued by daily activities, we make choices from the point of exhaustion, anxiety and worry. Simply put we react instead of choose.
In those moments, the rational parts of our brain that would make healthy and kind choices is hijacked by our “guard dog” part of the brain, the Amygdayla. In a true emergency – this part of the brain protects us. Chronically in this defense mode we disconnect – from our own needs and the needs of others. The cost is health and well-being in a ripple effect from ourselves to all around us.
The great news is that movement calms the brain and restores us to use the part of the nervous system (parasympathetic) that allows us to think clearly again.
In the very motivating book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey reminds us that movement turns on the higher order functions, boosts motivation, self-esteem, focus and mood. When we are physically active it promotes growth of new brain cells by increasing the level of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which he calls Miracle Grow for the brain. This growth helps regulate stress, manage depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. He states “When you move, play, especially having fun doing it you are using more cells than ever in the brain – making more of BDNF and helping the brain in so many ways.”
Research on positive emotions and how they affect the body are turning up very similar results. Neuroscientists are discovering that we can train the brain to restore calm to the mind which calms the entire body. When negative thoughts prevail, the body is in overdrive. A calm body allows for new cells to grow and the immune system to do its job.
The mind-body calming effect can be strengthened just like a muscle. Even if positive thinking does not come naturally to you, researchers found that practicing loving kindness meditation daily or even simply recalling your most positive connection each day, trains the brain to calm the body easier.
Barbara Fredrickson’s research shows that kindness and positive thoughts increase oxytocin which reduces the brains tendency to go into over-drive. This chemical also heightens our ability to connect with others.
During exercise the brain produces more serotonin and dopamine – two mood enhancing chemicals – within just 10 minutes of moderate activity!
Hmmm – what if we are able to combine these two brain boosting activities – movement and positivity?
Enjoyment as the first key to a good exercise program in the last blog is based on this brain science.
What are we missing out on when we find ways to just get through a workout? When we endure, even simply witness on a reality show, a boot camp style exercise instructor yelling and insulting to motivate? When we take a walk with a good friend and complain the whole time? When our minds are filled with self-criticism because the person on the next treadmill has the body of a supermodel?
It is time we eliminate exercise induced shame and anxiety. Let’s use this great science and multiply the benefits of movement:
- Listen to inspiring positive music or watch inspiring videos, like TED talks while exercising
- Exercise with a close friend and make a pact to listen mindfully and be encouraging
- Take a beauty walk – notice the beauty around you, stay curious, open, mindful
- Take a gratitude walk – listing all the things you are grateful for along the way
- Support only gym or class environments that are encouraging and uplifting
- Listen to an audiobook on a subject you really enjoy
- Vow to inspire others to enjoy exercise and movement
- Practice random acts of kindness while doing a physical activity
- Practice Loving Kindness Meditation or mindfulness while stretching
- Volunteer to help someone in need clean their yard or home, walk their dog, etc.
- Participate in a fund-raising walk/run for a cause you feel passionate about
In one of Susan O’Malley’s blogs on dealing with the grief of her mother’s passing she wrote: “The act of doing something, however simple, is transformational. I’m renewed in my belief in the process, and I can hear my mom tell me ” if it takes more energy to frown than be happy, trick your brain and smile.”
Let’s be clear – positivity is not Pollyanna. It is not about putting the tough stuff in our blind spot. It is simply using our human ability to choose where we put our thoughts. It is the brains job to look for real or potential problems to solve. This means we will most likely go to a negative thought when our mind wanders. Choosing to focus on gratitude, beauty and connection in a given moment is simply using this science to promote health and strengthen our resiliency.
This is a practice for true well-being. It is a life-long journey. We can start (and restart) the practice at any time.
Imagine the effect of our momentary decisions to move with positivity. Each of us in
a more calm, optimistic state of mind means our children, families, marriages, workplaces, community’s benefit from us taking the best care of ourselves.
The ripple effect is immeasurable…
Janet Huehls, MA, RCEP, CHWC
PS: Please share your ideas for connecting positivity and movement in the comments section.