Movement and the Mind

by Jeremy McCarthy

My personal passion for movement and exercise was inspired, in large part, by a man named Raymond Fowler. Ray was the executive vice president and CEO of the American Psychological Association, and he was a guest lecturer when I was studying Applied Positive Psychology at University of Pennsylvania. I took his class on “Exercise and the Brain” and my life has never been the same since.

When I joined Ray’s class, I was busier than I had ever been. I was trying to hold down my career in the midst of the 2008 recession, I was starting a serious relationship with the woman who would become my wife and the mother of my children, and I was driving back and forth to Pennsylvania every month to pursue my Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree. I didn’t have time to exercise.

In Ray’s class we began to review the incredible research on the impact of exercise and the brain. It turns out that exercise is not only good for counteracting obesity, diabetes and heart disease, it also helps us think better, it helps us feel better and it inspires us to become the best version of ourselves. My mindset shifted and the phrase “too busy to exercise” disappeared from my vocabulary. I came to realize that the busier I am, the more stressed I am, the more challenges I have before me, the more important it is to exercise. I need exercise to make sure that my body and my brain are operating at peak capacity.

Unfortunately, since taking Ray’s class, the world has become less active, not more. Work has become increasingly sedentary as we spend more and more of our time attached to computers. Even leisure time has become more sedentary as we turn to technology for entertainment and social activities. So how can we get all of the amazing benefits from physical movement that I learned about in Ray’s class?

1. Move more
At the beginning of the course, Ray not only assigned textbooks and required reading, he also instructed every student to buy a pedometer and to walk 10,000 steps a day over the course of the semester. This is a lesson in “Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis,” or NEAT, which is an indicator of the total amount of movement we get throughout the day. It turns out that NEAT may be more important than exercise for health and mental well-being. People today think that getting in their 30 to 60 minutes of exercise every day is enough to counteract the effects of being sedentary for upward of 10 hours a day. It’s not. Our bodies and brains were designed to move and they work best when moving more.

2. Move in new ways
If we think about exercise as a physical activity, it is easy to make it mindless. We can plug our brain in to Netflix on one of our devices while sitting on a machine that is designed to get our limbs pumping repetitively in a monotonous fashion. But if you think of exercise as being for the brain, then you want to practice mindful movement. Both the mind and the body respond more to movement patterns that are unfamiliar. The body and brain are forced to adapt.

3. Diversify
The human capacity for movement is a universe that goes far beyond the strength plus endurance plus flexibility that underpins modern fitness. From a well-being perspective, it is better to diversify. Getting a little bit of a lot of different kinds of movement may be better for us than grinding out the miles training for a marathon, or spending day after day at the gym. Some people are not motivated by physical aesthetics, and some people simply do not enjoy exercise. Ray passed away in 2015, at the age of 84, after a long and lauded career in intercultural psychology. But his teachings live on; they help us to realize that movement is important for our brain and our soul as well as our body, and exercise is not the only way to get more movement into our lives.

Thank you, Ray, for helping us to move more and move better.


JEREMY MCCARTHY is the group director of spa for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. He is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing.

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