How counselors are using physical fitness to increase well-being

Healthcare practices previously leaned towards treating mental and physical health separately. This separation created a disjointed approach to treatment, often overlooking many of the connections between the mind and body. Fortunately, that has changed, and a holistic approach to health is becoming the norm. This approach recognizes the importance of considering all aspects of a person’s well-being, including physical, emotional, and mental health. Mental health counselors are essential in advocating for and creating strategies that promote overall well-being. Bridging the gap between psychological and physical health means counselors can help clients achieve a more balanced state of health.

The importance of physical fitness in mental health

The relationship between physical fitness and mental health is becoming more widely accepted in scientific research, and there are explanations for why physical activity can improve mental well-being. For instance, several studies have shown that regular physical exercise can lead to noticeable improvements in conditions such as anxiety, depression, and stress. While there are some conflicting results in these types of studies, exercise is still considered to be a healthier approach than pursuing other habits that can either form because of mental illness or contribute to it.

A closer look at the impact of physical exercise

The mental health benefits of physical exercise can be explained in several ways. Firstly, physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, often known as a natural way of improving mood. Exercise is also sometimes linked to the reduction of inflammation within the body. The pain caused by this kind of chronic inflammation can cause a person to feel depressed. By reducing this inflammation and its associated pain, mental health may improve.

Exercise can promote neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural connections. This can improve their cognitive ability and resilience to stress. Regular physical activity can also improve quality of life, contributing to emotional and psychological well-being.

Combining therapy with physical fitness plans in mental health counseling careers is essential to providing holistic client care. Universities, such as American International College (AIC), recognize this connection. Programs, such as the Online Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, are available to prepare future counselors for a career to continue bridging the gap between mental and physical well-being. A curriculum focusing on theoretical knowledge and practical application can educate students on the latest research and strategies to improve mental health with physical fitness, alongside other methods.

Strategies for mental health counselors to promote physical fitness

Mental health counselors have a unique role that enables them to include physical fitness in their therapeutic plans to improve their clients’ well-being. This can involve counseling strategies such as goal setting, motivational interviewing, and behavioral activation.

Goal setting

Counselors must create realistic physical activity goals aligning with clients’ mental health objectives when promoting physical fitness. A counselor will begin by identifying the client’s interests, determining their current physical condition, and setting achievable milestones. For example, if a client is experiencing anxiety but has been physically inactive for some time, including a 15-minute walk in their daily routine could be a good starting point. They can gradually increase the duration as their comfort and fitness levels improve. Counselors will support clients by helping them to identify specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals. This acts as a clear roadmap to success.

Motivational interviewing

Motivational interviewing is another powerful tool used by counselors. Understanding their goal can motivate clients who are uncertain or reluctant to live a more active lifestyle. By using open-ended questions, reflective listening, and affirmations, counselors can help clients uncover their motivation to be physically active. They can also identify the barriers holding them back and empower them to take the first steps toward change. For example, if someone is feeling out of control, exercise and reaching small milestones on the way to their bigger goal can be more encouraging for them than just setting one main goal.

Behavioral activation

Behavioral activation is an evidence-based treatment for depression that involves helping clients discover and take part in activities they find enjoyable or rewarding. These can improve mood and decrease symptoms of conditions such as depression. Physical activities that the client enjoys and finds accessible can be included in a behavioral activation plan. For example, if a client enjoys being around nature, the counselor might suggest regular walks in a local park. Beginning with an activity that is low in effort but high in reward, then later switching to something more strenuous, helps the client to experience the benefits of regular exercise.

By using these strategies as part of their treatment plans, mental health counselors can help their clients recognize how physical fitness can contribute to managing mental health issues.

Collaborative approaches with other professionals

Partnerships can make incorporating physical activities into mental health care more successful. These partnerships can create an informed approach to client care that addresses both mental and physical well-being.

Establishing a network with fitness trainers, yoga instructors, and other wellness professionals helps create holistic care plans that cater to mental and physical health strategies. Working alongside healthcare professionals such as doctors also helps ensure that physical activity won’t further risk the person’s health. Mental health counselors can establish referral systems with these professionals to ensure clients receive tailored advice and support that works alongside their mental health goals. For example, a counselor working with a client experiencing high stress levels could refer them to a yoga instructor specializing in stress-reduction techniques. These partnerships provide clients with access to a broader range of care options.

One way to bridge the gap between mental and physical health is through designing and delivering workshops and programs alongside some of these professionals. This collaboration allows mental health counselors to create workshops that address health’s psychological and physical aspects. Some topics could include managing anxiety through exercise or improving mood with nutritional choices. The practical exercises in these programs, such as trying mindfulness techniques and educational segments, give clients practical experience of using physical activity to support their mental health.

Mental health counselors can stay informed on the latest research and attend regular training to maintain their skills. This will help them integrate physical fitness into their practice and provide their strategies based on the most up-to-date information. They are likely to hold already a counseling or mental health degree. However, they can also attend seminars or courses and gain physical fitness, nutrition, and wellness certifications. All of this broadens their understanding and ability to advise clients. By gaining this deeper understanding of physical health, counselors are better able to help their clients make informed decisions about their fitness routines and overall health strategies. During this learning, they may also contact people in the fitness industry or hoping to pursue a fitness career. The counselor can consult these people on complex questions related to physical exercise.

Overcoming barriers to physical activity

We’ve already established that regular physical activity benefits mental and physical well-being. However, many clients still face barriers. Some common obstacles include a lack of motivation, physical limitations, and time constraints. Finding solutions to these challenges requires mental health counselors to create plans that support their clients.

Low motivation

Lacking motivation prevents individuals from starting or keeping up with a regular exercise routine. Although a routine can achieve positive results over time, the effects aren’t instant. Not seeing the benefits immediately can deter some people, especially if they’re not enjoying the exercise. To overcome this, counselors can help clients identify activities they genuinely enjoy rather than focusing on traditional forms of exercise that may feel daunting or unappealing. For example, if clients like spending time with friends and family and their hobby is photography, they can combine hiking and photography. This could spark more interest than a gym session and be a good way for their loved ones to support them by joining them on walks. The photographs would provide happy memories for them to look back on when the person is feeling down and spur them to go hiking again.

Physical limitations

Of course, some clients have physical limitations that make some exercise out of reach. Yet, many low-impact exercises can be adapted to accommodate various abilities. Chair yoga is one example that people with limited mobility can still do. Again, this is a social element when they join a class. Water aerobics is another option for those who would struggle with regular aerobics. The collaboration between mental health counselors and physical therapists or fitness professionals allows them to create a personalized and attainable exercise plan.

Time constraints

Regular exercise requires the client to commit to time. Some clients with a busy schedule can see this as a barrier to physical activity. Counselors can suggest simple changes for them, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking or cycling for short commutes, or even having remote meetings while strolling in a quiet park. These small changes add up over the week without requiring the person to set aside large blocks of time. The counselor can encourage their client to wear a fitness tracker to see how much difference these short activities make over time. These trackers can track things such as steps taken, heart rate, and moderate or intense activity levels.

Weaving physical activity into a client’s life sometimes requires creative thinking. Understanding the unique barriers each client faces and offering tailored solutions helps counselors successfully promote physical fitness as an important part of mental health care. This approach supports clients in overcoming these barriers while empowering them to make positive and sustainable changes to their lifestyle and enhance their overall health.

Encouraging outdoor activities

Mental health professionals may create treatment plans combining physical activity with spending time outdoors, seeing the value in improving mental health.

For example, practicing mindfulness or meditation outdoors can make the person feel more connected to the natural world. This can be in the privacy of their garden, in the park with friends, or even in a private outdoor space on the clinic’s grounds. The mental health counselor can guide clients in focusing on sensory experiences, such as the sound of leaves rustling or the feel of the breeze. This can help with relaxation and feeling grounded.

Structured activities, such as gardening or conservation projects, can also be beneficial. The exercise doesn’t have to be too strenuous, but it can provide a sense of purpose and build a connection to the local community.

Finding the right combination for each client

Mental health counselors are important in bridging the gap between psychological and physical well-being. This can include strategies like goal setting, motivational interviewing, and integrating physical fitness into therapy. They can also collaborate with fitness professionals and promote nature-based activities as part of their therapeutic approach. This demonstrates an understanding of the connections between the mind and body. Using these strategies, mental health counselors can provide comprehensive support, build resilience, and promote a balanced lifestyle for their clients.

Dorothy R. Ferry

Coffee trailblazer. Unapologetic student. Freelance communicator. Travel nerd. Music fan. Spoke at an international conference about donating magma for farmers. Had some great experience promoting saliva on the black market. Spent 2002-2009 lecturing about basketballs in Pensacola, FL. In 2009 I was writing about Magic 8-Balls in Miami, FL. Earned praised for my work importing crayon art in Hanford, CA. At the moment I'm managing sausage in West Palm Beach, FL.

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