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Strong Body, Strong Mind: The Benefits of Fitness for Mental Wellness

I believe that mental health and physical heath are closely connected. I'm pretty fortunate to be married to a guy who is a chiropractor and thinks the same way. I asked my husband, Dr. Shawn Halliday, DC, if he would be willing to share some of his knowledge at different points throughout the year as a "guest blogger" if you will. I thought it would be best for him to introduce himself before you just take my word that he knows what he's talking about.

Hi, I'm Dr. Shawn Halliday. I am a chiropractor and athletic trainer in Alexandria, MN with a specialization in sports injuries, physical fitness, performance, and recovery. Physical fitness and sports have always been a passion of mine. I was passionate about football and basketball when I was younger and now find enjoyment in playing golf and doing triathlons. My number one goal in my work is to help people reach their physical performance goals and find the power within themselves to accomplish whatever they desire. I believe that exercise is a big part of that picture for most people. I want to talk a little bit about how exercise impacts a person as a whole.

All Stress is the Same

The mind will influence the body, and the body will influence the mind. As a result, all stress affects the body the same. It can be stress at work, relationship stress, or physical stress. It doesn't matter. Stress is stress. Regardless of the type of stress, the body responds by going into a sympathetic state. A sympathetic state is when the body responds to external stimuli by deciding to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn. Heart rate and breathing rate will increase. Blood flow to our muscles goes up. Cortisol levels rise to mobilize fuel for your muscles. Adrenaline and focus increase dramatically. These adaptations were instrumental in our survival for thousands of years ago when our species didn’t have the technological advancements we have today. Times have changed but our bodies haven't.

What was once a crucial survival strategy has become a response that interferes with modern life. In contemporary society, we get bombarded with stressors that constantly activate this sympathetic state. Herein lies the real issue; the stress response never turns off. Over time, this will alter the release of cortisol and circadian rhythms, disrupt sleep, stimulate appetite, promote weight gain, and lower mood. Oh, and all of this is happening while you feel incredibly anxious. Most of us don't want to feel that way. So what can we do? One very successful and science-backed method is exercise.

Increase To Decrease

There are countless exercise options available, and all of them can help to manage stress and anxiety. Exercise helps to reduce anxiety by increasing the stress response. Yes, you read that right. By increasing your heart rate, respiration rate and utilizing fuel stores through exercise, the body will redirect blood flow to visceral organs, slow down the heart and respiration rate, cortisol will go down, and muscles relax once the workout ends. When this happens, your body has entered into a parasympathetic, or low-stress, state. In a nutshell, we increase stress to reduce stress. The cool part about this, the type of exercise you do does not matter. Running, biking, lifting weights, or playing sports are all equally effective. The goal you are going after is to raise your heart and respiration rate. How you do that is up to you.

Four Principles for Effective Exercise

While the exercise you choose is up to you, there are some principles to follow to make it more effective and safer.

The first principle is adherence. Work, family, friends, kids, housework, and self-care are all important and require our time. You have to find a workout routine that can fit into your schedule as it is, not as you want it to be. A good range for exercise is 2-5 times per week for 20-60 minutes. Exercise is not a punishment. If you struggle to find a type of movement you enjoy, find what you dislike the least. Forcing yourself to do something you hate is a recipe for not doing it consistently.

The second principle is balance the intensity and volume. Exercise intensity refers to how heavy something is, how fast you are going, or how much you did in a given amount of time. Exercise volume refers to how many times you lifted something, how far you ran, or how long you did something. Intensity and volume are opposites. As you increase one, you have to decrease the other. CrossFit is an example of high intensity. You lift heavy weights, lift them fast, and try to get as much done in a given time. Long-duration running is an example of high-volume exercise. Both are effective at lowering stress.

The third principle is load management. Exercise is a stress, just like all the other stressors you face every day. The right amount of stress is needed to create change, but too much results in damage. Self-regulating this can be tricky. It is a common misconception that the sorer you are following a workout, the better your workout was. You should actually only experience mild soreness, meaning it does not affect daily activities, every once in a while. If it's painful to sit down on the toilet or you can't walk up a flight of steps, you did too much. If that continues over a long period, it will likely result in an injury.

The final fitness principle is accuracy. In order to get to where you want to go, you need an accurate assessment of where you are right now. If you used to run cross country in high school but haven't run in 10 years, you likely can't run as far or as fast as you used to. The same goes for lifting weights; if you haven't lifted in awhile you are not going to be as strong as you once were. Accuracy refers to knowing what your current abilities are. Basing your current training off of outdated metrics is a surefire way to an injury. It can be very disheartening to regress on something you used to be good at. If you can accept where you are currently at physically, then getting back to where you once were is only a matter of time and patience.

Exercise is Only A Piece of the Puzzle

Following these principles can lower your risk of injury, improve overall fitness levels, and decrease symptoms of stress and anxiety. Exercise has also been shown to help with other psychological conditions, such as depression, as well. Every person is unique, so while exercise may be a huge help for some, it may not be as game-changing for others. Anxiety, stress, and depression require a multi-faceted approach when it comes to care. Talk therapy, medications, exercise, nutrition, sleep, and social connection are all valuable and work together to give you the best results.

If you aren't feeling like you want to feel right now, consider what might be missing from the complete picture of your care. There are educated and knowledgable people who can assist you in whatever area you might be struggling with. Don't overlook the impact that something as obvious as exercise can have on your life.

To learn more from Dr. Shawn Halliday, DC, you can find him on Facebook, Instagram, or connect with him via email at

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