Physical activity is tightly linked to mental health, because human beings are at their most basic level, physically active creatures. The brain itself is foundationally a movement organ. This is hard to comprehend because we think of the brain as well, a “thinking” organ. But underlying thinking, is both moving, surviving, reacting, learning, and feeling, the more primitive motives. It’s not that those primitive motives necessarily control us, because we have free will and the higher brain centers to control those urges and motivations, but those instinctual drivers are inherent to who we are. The most developed parts of the brain called the higher brain, make us human and distinguish us from other animals and other life forms and they can and should control the more primal parts of the brain, but the influence of all parts of the brain- primitive, mammalian, and human- on human behavior cannot be denied.
As I wrote extensively about, exercise is a higher brain activity, just like reading, studying, practicing, preparing, saving, planning, and acting ethically or morally. Exercise should be encouraged because it’s a good thing and forces us to use our higher brain. Exercise boosts the parts of the brain related to delaying gratification, which is required to be successful in any endeavor. Exercise also aids the mental, physical, and spiritual health of a person for reasons I laid out in the book. Though I am proud of the work, at the time the book was published, I did not have a full appreciation for the power of visual models, so I did not place a model of the benefits in the book, but I wish I had.
This is the model I have since created, which I posted yesterday, called “The Movement & Meaning Model”. It gives us a clear way to look at the benefits of exercise for mental health, spiritual, mental, and physical.
In addition to learning how important it is to have visual models like this for motivation, I also learned a few other crucial things I’d like to share with you in relation to mental health:
Harmony – Though I did touch on this some, I underestimated the role of harmony when it comes to mental health. Harmony sounds good on paper, and everyone wants to be in harmony, but in the real world it’s hard. I came to see more and more after I released the book, did more research on addiction and spoke with 100s of people, how much angst and unhappiness there is out there because we tend to get out of harmony. We deny natural laws and then try to essentially dominate nature. We should accept the world the way it is, and work with what we have and with nature’s reality, instead of trying to dominate it.
I see people doing this all the time. I’m never going to be good at basketball, even though I love playing. I’m never going to be a great singer, even though I enjoy singing. People have a hard time accepting reality and working with it. We are beating our heads up against the wall when we try to cheat nature. We need our sleep, our rest, we have limits, and no matter what any silly motivational speaker says, we can’t do anything we want. Sometimes, when it comes to fitness and other things, we ask too much of ourselves. It’s healthier to focus on being in harmony than on “doing anything you want to do.” Living in harmony is the great interplay between expressing yourself and dealing with reality as it is. It's a delicate balance.
Not Individualism VS. Community, Individualism AND Community – Mental health is not a sole individual activity. For example, the famous American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson went out to Walden Pond by himself, to live alone, but eventually he came back. He missed people and he missed community. One thing I’ve really learned since I wrote this book is how crucial it is to find a healthy balance between individualism and community. I touched on culture some in the book, but I think now it is more important than ever to form communities through which we can build positive, healthy, life-affirming relationships, and in which our individualism can shine through.
Culture- I’ve written more about this lately. I knew it was important then, which is why I wrote about how exercise can give you a positive & healthy identity in a culture which does not offer many examples of that, but let me make it perfectly clear: Everything else, including mental health, flows from culture. In our cultural moment, focus on being counter-cultural, and you’ll be healthier. It's not that you can't be healthy in an unhealthy culture, because you certainly can. But you need to work hard to create your own culture within the context of the bigger picture. This is a great lesson for incorporating physical activity in your life.
Hierarchy & Tradition- This one came out of nowhere and I did not expect it. When it comes to personal growth and mental health, I have gained a great amount of respect for hierarchy and tradition over the last few years, when and only when it is done right, because these are the relationships by which we are formed into healthy, mature, personally responsible adults. I did not clearly see at the time how much, ironically, healthy individualism is formed by hierarchy. I have always been a very independent person, and one who tended to reject authority over me. I realize now that this is a mistake in some cases, and that we should seek out proper authority, if it is healthy and encourages our individualism in a positive way. Rejecting authority can cause mental health problems because it chokes off healthy sources of identity development- athletics, hobbies, clubs, teams, work, learning situations, religious groups, etc.
This rejection of hierarchy and tradition is something we are sorely lacking in our culture. Rejecting hierarchy means rejection teaching, and thus learning. It’s a dumbing down and a regression of humanity. It relates to families, communities, work, hobbies, as well as ethical development. I can thank my continued involvement in martial arts and in a traditional hierarchical church for helping me to “see” how this type of order can structure our lives in a positive way, giving us greater meaning in our lives, a greater sense of personal power, as well as a stronger sense of positive identity. It is an unfortunate consequence of our cultural rejection of all legitimate authority figures (some for good reason), that we often struggle to be healthy. I know hierarchy and tradition are things that can become pathological, but if done right they can make a positive difference in our lives.
Roles- Roles fit into harmony, culture, authority, and hierarchy and tradition. I now see clearly how important it is to have roles in life and to embrace them. We as a culture reject roles but rejecting roles has not created healthy individuals, it has created stunted ones, because to do anything you must take on a role- father, son, mother, citizen, business owner, plumber, member, runner, or soccer player, for example. You don’t necessarily have to succumb to social pressure to take every role society places on you, but to reject roles altogether is to reject life. Embracing what you do, your role(s), and doing it well is a powerful thing when it comes to mental health because it again forms a healthy identity grounded in reality and harmony. When it comes to exercise, this also applies. When you participate in a class, a sport, or are learning from someone, embrace your role so you can improve and become a more powerful and healthy individual.
Exercise and physical activity are powerful for mental health. I re-learn this lesson all the time. Exercise is not the point, but it’s a starting point. It tells us something: that our lives are important and worth living well and in a healthy way. Movement and meaning is ongoing story that never ends, and the lessons keep racking up.