​The Power of Movement: Using Exercise to Improve Your Mental Health

Posted by Lauren Presutti in Life After Paralysis on May 18, 2021 # Health

Maintaining positive mental health while living with paralysis – or caring for a loved one with paralysis – requires adopting different coping strategies, discovering the ones that work well for you and throwing out the ones that don’t. Paralysis aside, we all have unique lifestyles, preferences, and characteristics – everyone’s mental health journey will be different – but nonetheless, we all have basic needs of diet, exercise, and sleep. In my therapy, I work with clients; starting with assessing these basic needs is often helpful because these lay the foundation we need as a prerequisite for wellness. In my previous blog, I discussed healthy eating habits to improve mental health. Today, I will focus on exercise, and my next blog will address sleep.

man in striped shirt using an exercise machineFor Those Living with Paralysis

After a spinal cord injury, adapting to your new functionality with paralysis usually doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to exercise. If you can, try to get your arms moving for at least a few minutes every day. Part of your rehabilitation process likely included physical therapy, and you may have been taught new ways to exercise your body as much as your paralysis will allow. It’s important to check in with a physical therapist or doctor before starting a new exercise routine, but generally speaking, adapting exercise to your new normal will be possible.

Those living with paraplegia may want to try using a handcycle or another form of accessible equipment. You might enjoy activities that involve exercise, such as wheelchair basketball, pushing your wheelchair on long walks, rowing, seated aerobics, weightlifting, and many others. For those living with quadriplegia, active exercise may be difficult, but there are still many ways to take care of your body through stretching and range of motion exercises with the assistance of another person. Even deep breathing can be a form of exercise that individuals with minimal mobility can engage in. It’s important to challenge “normal” ideas of exercise that you may see on television, in magazines, or in conversations among people without disabilities. Get creative and push yourself to define exercise in your own way.

For example, maybe you never considered swimming for exercise prior to the injury, but now you might want to explore this activity. Many people with limited mobility find swimming to be immensely beneficial because water provides the freedom to move your body in less restrictive ways. As an individual living with muscular dystrophy, I have enjoyed swimming throughout my life because it is the only way that I can freely move my whole body without the restriction of gravity on land. Aquatic movement is a great form of exercise that I encourage you to try. Make sure to call community centers in advance to ask if there is a pool lift installed for safely transferring into and out of the water.

For Caregivers and Loved Ones

Caregivers and loved ones should consider a wide variety of exercises that fit your unique needs and interests. With more forms of exercise, you may discover that you enjoy bike riding, running, long walks, playing soccer, dance, jumping rope, rock climbing, gymnastics, or any other types of active movement – discover what you like best.

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Have you ever felt a natural high after an amazing workout? You may have heard before that these positive feelings are thanks to endorphins, neurochemicals released by your body during and after exercise. But regular releases of endorphins can also lead to lower levels of depression and anxiety, help improve self-esteem, and boost your confidence in all areas of your life. Physical movement also helps you release the buildup of internal chaos and stress that you feel inside your mind and body. Particularly for individuals who experience anxiety or panic attacks, staying active can help manage racing thoughts and worries. Individuals with anxiety might be prone to a higher heart rate, jittery feelings, and hyperactivity. Exercise can be especially beneficial. Working out helps lower your resting heart rate and reduce those jittery or hyperactive feelings.

Exercise can also help distract you from negative thoughts and feelings, which is beneficial for all mental illnesses. Suppose we are constantly ruminating over our negative emotions, bound up in our bedroom or crashing on the couch only to obsess more and more over our feelings of sadness, overwhelm, insecurity, shame, or frustration. In that case, we are more likely to feed into those negative emotions and experience greater despair. Coping with negative emotions includes challenging our unhealthy or irrational thoughts, replacing our internal narrative with healthier affirmations, and distracting ourselves with positive activities that keep us focused on an upward wellness trajectory. Exercise can be the perfect way to do this. When we are exercising, we focus on the workout, and we may be counting our repetitions, pushing ourselves to our physical limits, or focusing on our techniques. Staying present in the moment through exercise usually means there is less mental space for anxiety or depression.

Physical activity can also add routine and structure to our lives, which is known to improve our mental health. When we stick to a routine, we don’t experience the added stress of deciding how to spend our free time. Usually, when people have too much extra free time on their plates, it becomes difficult to use that time productively and we sometimes feel more internal chaos without structure in place. It’s important to consider how much exercise feels right to you. You may want to incorporate 30 minutes of exercise into every day of your week, or you may want to commit to an hour-long workout only a few days a week. Others will want to work out more or less, and that’s okay.

Do you like to exercise individually or with others? Exercising should be a fun, safe experience, so if you are an introvert who feels rejuvenated with alone time, you may want to stick to individual workouts. On the other hand, if you benefit immensely from social support, joining an exercise class either face-to-face or virtually can help foster your sense of community and maintain motivation to keep coming back. If joining an exercise program, be sure to find one that is affordable and convenient for you. Breaking the bank just to join an expensive health club membership will only add financial stress to your life.

Sometimes it’s helpful to incorporate your favorite music to boost your energy and mood while working out. Creating a fun playlist that energizes you is a great strategy. It’s also important to be comfortable in your workout clothing – don’t pressure yourself to wear what everybody else is wearing at the gym. Find what works the best for you. And if you need a little more inspiration to get started, invest in a new water bottle, watch YouTube videos about exercise, upgrade your tennis shoes, or flip through a health magazine. Sometimes it’s the little things that we need to push ourselves forward.

Most importantly, let go of perfectionism and don’t compare yourself to others. In the exercise world, we often make comparisons that end up becoming toxic and counterproductive. This may be especially relevant for individuals in the paralysis community who experience differences in physical functionality. If we are constantly comparing ourselves to other people, we are diminishing ourselves and invalidating our own growth and progress. Everyone has different body types, health conditions, exercise training history, fitness knowledge, time allowances, and other variances – it’s almost impossible to make a fair comparison given all factors involved. Most of the time, our comparisons are not justified because we don’t account for these differences. A much healthier approach is to avoid comparisons altogether – focus on your own journey and be proud of yourself no matter what you are able to do. Even 10 minutes of exercise is better than nothing. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

If you have questions or if I can be a resource for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Your mental health matters.

To learn about River Oaks Psychology, visit www.riveroakspsychology.com and follow River Oaks Psychology on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

Lauren Presutti, founder of River Oaks Psychology, is a psychotherapist and advocate for individuals and families affected by disabilities of all types. Born with Muscular Dystrophy and using a wheelchair throughout her life, Lauren is passionate about helping others overcome barriers and reach their fullest potential. Lauren also enjoys writing, speaking, and providing education on subjects relating to mental health and empowerment.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.