Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free
People often seek out therapy when they are having difficulty regulating painful emotions and the problem behaviors that so frequently accompany emotional distress.
Severe anxiety or depression, eating issues, self-harm, addictive behaviors and problems in relationships are examples of the types of challenges people often face when they enter therapy.
Although there are a number of therapies that help people to understand and change painful emotions and problem behaviors, it is also commonly understood that certain lifestyle changes can help people improve mental and physical well-being. Getting enough sleep, treating physical illness and pain, eating a balanced and healthful diet and, yes, exercise, are all factors in our life that can have a significant impact on our emotional well-being.
“I thought that incorporating exercise into my clinical or performance work might allow clients to address issues in a way that felt more comfortable for them than talking face to face, or would give them the opportunity to literally get off the couch as opposed to talking about it,” Michelle Joshua PhD, founder of Work it Out LLC says in Monitor on Psychology (September 2013).
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Joshua is not alone in her desire to incorporate exercise into her therapeutic practice. According to the Monitor, a growing number or clinicians are looking to find ethical and effective ways to combine exercise and therapy.
Exercise is commonly recommended to clients by their therapists and research supports the effectiveness of exercise in improving depression, anxiety, insomnia, weight gain and other mental health difficulties.
Psychologists Kate Hays, PhD, of The Performing Edge in Toronto and Jennifer Lager, PsyD, suggest in the Monitor that there are other potential benefits to adding a little exercise into a therapy session.
1. Exercising during sessions can model good exercise behavior to clients.
2. Exercising with clients can help them take steps towards their goals for physical health.
3. Some find it easier to let down their guard and talk when they’re not in a formal office setting.
4. Some people have trouble sitting still, and benefit from moving while talking.
5. Some find walking or moving while talking to be relaxing.
6. Exercising during sessions can humanize a therapist and, as a result, strengthen the connection between therapist and client.
7. Getting outside for a walk can help us unwind and exercise can have an impact on brain activity that potentially enhances our ability for creative thought, self-awareness and emotional awareness.
Not all therapy is necessarily enhanced by exercise and this mode of treatment may not be a fit for everyone. And therapy that includes exercise must adhere to the same essential therapeutic guidelines as therapy in an office: it must be confidential and it’s important to maintain therapeutic boundaries. Therapists must also remain flexible, honor client preferences and be sure not to push walking or exercise on a client.
However, for many, a connection with nature or a leisurely walk during therapy can help improve both mental and physical well-being.
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