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Are Movement and Mental Health Related?

Over 90% of human evolutionary history has been in a state of motion. Moving from one land to the next, following game and following opportunity. Scientists are only recently starting to realize how much of an effect that primordial history has on our lives today. Every civilization hailed at the importance of athletics and held up its champions with pride. Movement is clearly interlinked with the psychology of being human. Yet, sadly, even with the scientific knowledge we have supporting this, our modern age has forgotten this ancient and unspoken truth. 

I can speak for myself that, before I rediscovered this truth, I would sit around for hours trying to finish a task. Midway through my task, I start feeling a headache, a sore back, and my legs start to tense. I know my body is signalling me to get up, move my blood, but I am so consumed in the task, I persist and continue in a less-than-optimal productive manner (I only later realized that if I moved for five minutes I would be more productive). The darker truth is that this behavior has dramatic consequences on someone’s health because it can put one at risk for depression and other mental health issues. There is ample evidence linking the benefits of physical activity to prevention and intervention of mental health issues like depression and substance-abuse. 

Scientists speculate the reason physical exercise shows such benefits is because it stimulates the release of naturally occurring mood-enhancing chemicals in the body known as endorphins and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).  Such chemicals are depleted when someone goes into depression. It is most important to have continuous and regular exercise, as research suggests it helps the brain in dealing with stress, improving focus and problem solving. 

Given the anthropological truth laid out in the first paragraph and the scientific truth in the second, I think it is time for teachers to highly consider the effectiveness of movement and physical activity in helping with mental health and in learning. Whereas before, movement and physical activity was only seen as a diversion to mental focus, it now needs to be looked at with a different perspective.

What can teachers do now? They must realize and teach that learning and adapting to difficult life situations is a two-way road involving conscious effort from the mind and physical exercise (to sharpen the cognitive effort). They must encourage participation in athletics aside from academics, include diverse projects that allow for movement, and constantly reiterate the benefits of exercise to the body and mind. It is important that teachers do this because these students may not be getting this life-saving information from anywhere else. 

Everyone has had in their life a teacher they admired, and this is generally because that teacher promoted a life of balance. What is balance to humans? It is what we are and have always been doing. Exercise is a condition of our history and survival, implanted into our neurobiology and psychology. We must listen to this calling, work with it so it works with us. The World Health Organization predicts that depression will create the second greatest burden of disease in the future. It is time to take preventive measures and that begins in the classroom.

Guest Author: Maryam Mohammad recently graduated from the Bachelor of Education Program at Western University. Previously, she received a Bachelor's degree in Chemistry and Biology from Western. Currently, Maryam lives in New Brunswick where she's working towards becoming a Vision Teacher (teacher for students with visual impairments). In her free time she is an avid photographer, her favourite subjects being nature and portraiture. Maryam loves hiking and running on nature trails all over the country. Her favourite hike thus far was up a mountain in Alberta where she got to see the Lake in the Clouds (Lake Louise, Mirror Lake, and Lake Agnes) and drink from a mountain top tea house. She also loves badminton, drawing, writing, and cooking with friends.

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