Mindful movement: Enhancing mental health through everyday actions

To coincide with this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme of movement, we sat down with Recovery Navigator Ellen and Bristol Wellbeing College tutor Tom to ask them about the value of movement for mental health.  

Watch the video below, or read on for the transcript.

What would you say to someone struggling to find the time and motivation for movement? 

Tom: I think the first thing is to recognise that we all have limitations. Realigning the expectations that we might have around what is worth doing and what we can do is really, really important.  

Sometimes the reason we don’t start things in the first place is because they feel too big or too hard. Maybe at some point in our lives, we feel like we have to go to the gym for an hour or we have to go for a run for half an hour. Whatever it is, those are the times we set ourselves. But realistically we’re all adults, we’ve all got other things we need to do. I think it’s about, first of all, integrating movement into your everyday life, so making really easy swaps. If you’re already walking to work, maybe walking a bit quicker, or cycling as opposed to getting the bus.  

Secondly, not putting a time frame on it. If you’ve got five or ten minutes, you might want to do a bit of stretching or take five minutes from your desk and just go up and down the stairs or move your hands. It’s the little things. Whatever you can do, a couple of push-ups a day or whatever feels comfortable, is better than nothing. And seeing that as all part of the progress as opposed to thinking ‘I don’t have time to go to gym because I’ve only got 15 minutes, therefore I’m not going to do anything’. 

Ellen: I totally agree. I also think finding something that you enjoy so that it doesn’t have to be a chore. But I think sometimes I notice the motivation comes after I experience the benefits of something. So there’s something about, before even stepping towards it, just connecting with my future self and thinking about how I will be feeling on the other side and how that feeling could motivate me. 

Why is movement so important for our mental health?  

Ellen: It’s just so interesting that we speak about these things separately, sometimes within the medical model: our mental health and our physical health. I think they’re so intrinsically connected. Our mind is in our body. It’s a two-way street and so sometimes if we’re feeling a little bit stuck mentally, just by moving our body and creating an experience of ‘I’m able to move, I’m able to feel a sense of bit more freedom or a bit of energy’. 

If I’m feeling a little bit depleted and like I haven’t got much resource for myself, I do something that gives me the physical experience of feeling strong. Similarly, if I’m feeling a bit wobbly in my emotions, if I do something that gives me a sense of balance then that gives me the experience of balance and that feeds into my mental state.  

Tom: Changing our thoughts or changing our mental state from that mental health side of things is really challenging. And not to say that physically it isn’t challenging, but I think sometimes, as you said, just by going for a walk or changing our behaviours will benefit our mental state. The science behind it is rock solid.  

What small movements could someone do while the kettle boils?  

Ellen: For me, it’s all about freeing up the joints. We think a lot about our muscles and holding tension in our muscles and there can be quite a lot of awareness about that. But when we think about the muscles, they all join at our joints. So things that can be really beneficial can be rolling your wrists, rolling your shoulders, doing little hip circles with your hips, lifting one leg up like you’re stirring a big pot of soup with your foot.  

But I think most importantly when we think about movement, we need to enjoy it and take the opportunity to just feel in and consider ‘How does my body want to move right now?’ Really honour that and pay attention and give that inner listening because I think that’s the skill that translates from mindful movement into good mental health practices. 

Tom: Interesting. So you think that ability to turn your focus inwards can be used as well in terms of working out how you feel mentally? Not just what aches or what doesn’t ache.  

Ellen: Yeah. It’s taking stock and thinking ‘What are my needs? What does my body need right now?’ And then responding to that. Over time we get used to checking in and knowing and sensing what we’re feeling. Responding gives us a lot more choice, a lot more autonomy, a lot more feeling of power. 

What role does movement have in mental health recovery? 

Tom: From a trauma aware point of view, I know that things can feel very stuck as you mentioned, and I think moving in a positive way can help with some of those blockages and can help move things forward. And I know that breath work is really important in some trauma-informed exercise, and yoga as well.  

When it comes to recovery from mental health, my understanding is that it’s not just about what you do individually, but about your network and your support.  

One thing I would say is that movement can help you connect again. It can get you out there with a different group of people with a different kind of network that might be more supportive. Recovery is a group effort as well as much as it is an individual effort.  

Ellen: I like what you’re saying about recovery as a group effort. I think we need to think about recovery in a broader sense. But when you think about connection, it makes me think about connection to others and connection to self. And often in times of mental health challenges, what we’re feeling feels too much and we can shut off, which is a very intelligent protective mechanism. Movement gives us a way to reconnect to feeling that’s less threatening.  

What do you do to support your mental health and wellbeing? 

Tom: I walk a lot. Not necessarily in mountains, but whenever I don’t feel as good my default, I’ve trained myself to go outside to just shake it out a little bit. That’s often my first line of defence. And then sometimes it’s doing the opposite of what I want to do deep down. So sometimes I think I’ll withdraw, or maybe I won’t go out as much or I’ll tell myself I need another night in or not see anyone because it’s self-care. And there’s definitely a time for that, but I know that nine times out of ten seeing friends and people I like makes me feel better. Even if in the moment I don’t always feel up for it, it normally has a positive impact.  

Ellen: I also walk to be connected to nature, to move and to just process. I also regularly practice yoga: qigong in the mornings sometimes and I dance. Dance is something I wish I did more because I find it so joyful. 

How does movement play a part in your role at Second Step? 

Ellen: When I’ve been in support working roles at Second Step, it’s been quite a big part of the holistic recovery journey of working with somebody in the community following significant challenges in their mental health. Part of our role is to walk alongside somebody in life, in the community, and to engage with their interests. So often we will be walking and talking.  

Sometimes sitting in a room can be a bit reminiscent of challenging conversations that have been had with other mental health professionals. There’s something about just going out and connecting to places that can allow somebody to feel a bit more at ease in terms of sharing. 

Within my training role around trauma-informed practice, it’s something that we’re they’re talking about and there is a real need for really respecting that and creating spaces and ways for us to regulate our bodies to stay connected and to stay grounded. Movement and practices and awareness practices have been really key to ensure that we do that safely. And to create spaces to check in with our bodies, because our bodies are going to give us that information. That body awareness and creating space for people to really notice their bodies and nurture their bodies feels really important. 

Tom: It’s really nice that you’ve been able to take what you learned on the ground in support work and and, seeing the impacts there, take it into a bigger audience in your training and facilitating role. That must be really rewarding to continue that journey. 

I came from a background where I did lots of movement and exercise in my previous jobs and roles, and I was really keen to bring it to Bristol Wellbeing College. Movement definitely features in a lot of our workshops, including our trauma and anxiety workshops. We often do little exercises where it’s all about trying to shake things out and get things moving, but I want to try and make it even more of a part of the college.  

So, I developed a Mind and Movement workshop which is all about that. It’s a bit more literal about the benefits of exercise and movement on our mental health and on our physical health. It’s a very action focused workshop where we’re really working with people to think ‘What do you want to do? Why is it going to make things better for you and how are you going to do it?’ And trying to make it very real for people.  

We’ve also got walking workshops and I love them so much. The connections and the conversations that you have on those walks are just so powerful and we tie it up with mindfulness exercises and looking at things and seeing things. I just think it is magic. 

Ellen: I can attest that the walks are really beneficial for those who attend, from conversations I had while on the walk. People have shared that the walks they went on influenced them to go on other walks just on their own. They’re doing the mindfulness things and noticing they’re connecting with their senses. They’re really enjoying that, so it ripples out.  

Find out more about Bristol Wellbeing College and Community Rehabilitation.

Find out more about our Psychological, Adversity and Trauma-informed work.

Cover photo by Rachel Vine on Pexels.

Share this page