When Simone Biles withdrew from events in the 2021 Olympics, it highlighted a shift in our society. Finally, we are open to doing what we need to do for our mental health without the stigma of being ‘weak’.
That healing shift is incomplete when we use a brain-based approach to mental health. Sure, exercise is on the list of ways to have better mental health, but from where I stand as a clinical exercise physiologist, I believe exercise more often gets in the way of whole-person healing.
In the patients and clients I see who need the mental health benefits only exercise can provide, exercise is among the topics that add to depression and anxiety. Whether it's due to weight gain from antidepressants, or anxiety connected with walking into a gym or trying to reach a step goal by pushing through joint pain, the advice to move more or start exercising only adds feelings of dread and worthlessness.
In this article, I give you a whole-person solution by making the connection between mental and emotional well-being and the center of your physical well-being, your core. I'll highlight for you the common ways our mindset and approaches to core strength hinder our mental health and the simple science-based fixes you can use to connect with your core to support mental health.
I use the Be Well Now method to take the stress out of exercising and having a strong core and provide a whole-person tour of the core that shows how to leverage this connection to support mental health. As you will see, when you know how its designed to support your wellbeing, this center of your body can be a tremendous resource for feeling more connected, confident, and calm in the moments of life you need it most!
Step 1 Be: present with kindness to the center of your whole person
Start by noticing what comes up when you think about your core. Is it sit-ups, planks, six-pack abs and maybe a sense of embarrassment about the lack of strength and definition of your middle? Meet yourself where you are and become aware of the feelings that are hanging out in the background.
Because your core is so central to your survival, this part of your body is in constant communication with your brain. There is no ignoring the core, even if it is subconsciously affecting how you think, move, and feel.
The muscles of our core connect our upper and lower body, support our organs and stabilize our spine, but they offer much more than that. A strong connection to the core helps you feel grounded, whole and secure within yourself. Kelly Dean, PT
Embody this presence by finding your natural alignment. Notice the shift in how you feel when you are in and out of alignment. This embodied presence has been shown to improve confidence and calm, to the degree that it improves test scores and interview skills.
There is an important difference between natural alignment and ‘standing up straight’. A neutral open stance has been shown to be more effective at improving cognition and mental health than "trying" to have an open posture. It's a subtle but essential difference. In trying to stand upright with 'good posture' we can overcorrect, with the chest out and pushing the back into an arched position. This causes the back muscles to overwork, adding to more, rather than less, tension. The mindset of trying to “fix bad posture” perpetuates the state of stress. Natural alignment is allowing your body, and thus your whole person, to just be.
As you rest in your natural alignment, notice all the ways your body is taking care of you right now in this area, without you having to do anything or try to make it happen. Breath and organs are turning air and food into energy. Your spine is strong yet flexible by design. Your core muscles are hardwired to know how to support and protect this vital center. Without doing anything except being in your alignment, your body is taking care of you. Pretty cool, huh?! Rest in this position, feeling how the center of your body is taking care of you right now to embody a kind connection to your core.
Step 2 Well: embody trust in the wisdom and strength already in your core
Your core is home to your second and third brain—your heart brain and gut brain. Each has been well studied and determined to have large collections of nerve endings that are directly connected to the brain in your head.
You know things here that are known without even thinking. Your heart brain knows what and who you care about. Your gut brain holds your inner wisdom, intuition, and guidance. What a tremendous built-in resource for feeling more empowered and having greater clarity and calm in the face of stressors!
Your body is born with this knowing that your core is a wealth of valuable information, support, stability, and strength, but it is drowned out by the medical message about how to have a strong core and what your core is supposed to look like. When you relearn and reconnect with these muscles and their function, you restore access to your unique strength, skills, and motivation.
Take a moment to rest your attention here. To embody trust in this internal wealth of wisdom in your center.
The challenge is, that we are flooded with images of what your core is supposed to look like and how a strong core looks. This leads to the belief that if your core does not look strong, it's not strong. These images of a strong core are way off base. A strong core is functional, internal, and not based on looks.
“Activating the core muscles sends a message connected to the adrenal glands via the brain to help regulate stress. We don’t yet know exactly how, but engaging the core seems to tell the body to calm down.” Caroline Williams, Move
The way to make peace with this part of your body is to know that the core muscles are there to support this vital area of you. They are not there to plank. They are not there to do sit-ups. They are not even there to show off on the beach. They are there to support and protect.
As I describe in the video below, every muscle in this area is there to support your spine in alignment so that when you move, your structure stays strong, and every other joint stays in its strongest position. That includes your pelvic floor, the floor of your core with strong ties to your diaphragm and thus your breath.
It's often difficult to wrap your head around how utterly simple it is to have a strong core. When I share the structure and function of the core, the most common response is ‘ahhhh, that makes so much sense!” Yes, the body does make sense. But the flood of misinformation about the core is a roadblock. It's the exercises that misuse the core that block your connection to your heart brain and gut brain.
Take time to make peace with your core and regain access to this center of physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional strength.
3. Now: move from your strong supportive center to be whole-person healthy
Those first two steps of reconnecting with kindness to your whole-person core are essential for exercise to work its magic for your mental and emotional health and well-being.
When you hear (or give) advice to exercise for mental health, pause to Be Well Now so your center can lead the way to whole-person health.
With your body set up to tell your brain you are okay right now, you can use movement and exercise to clear the stress tension from your body, balance feel-better brain chemicals, and tap into the internal wisdom and strengths that provide a shield to keep you from chronic stress.
A whole-person approach to mental health not only includes moving your body, but moving your body well. It all starts with information about your core that is accurate and true to the way you are designed to thrive. Follow along in the video below to restore the muscle memory for moving the way you are designed from these foundational principles of moving well.
There's a clear link between how we move, think, and feel. The muscles that control posture, our core muscles, have an impact on an organ that is involved in stress. Peter Strick, PhD neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh
How to have both core strength and mental health
It takes time and mindful attention to embody a strong and kind connection to the center of your body. Practicing awareness when scrolling social media so you can discard images and exercises and messages that disconnect you from this vital part of your being.
Throughout your day, practice shifting back into your natural alignment, let your breath bring your attention to how you are cared for, guided and wise in your center. As you activate your whole-person core support move on with whole-person confidence and notice the innate effects on your mental, physical, and emotional health.
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