When you ask counselors what interventions have the biggest impact on mental health, exercise is likely to be near the top of the list. There are numerous benefits of exercise and regular physical activity can help increase self-esteem, improve cognitive functioning, improve sleep, relieve stress, and increase energy and stamina. This can result in higher morale at work, better quality of work, and decreased burnout. Exercising can help us become more alert, engaged, and effective counselors. Yet counselor education and post-licensure trainings rarely place emphasis on the value of exercise when it comes to quality of work.
The obvious physical and psychological benefits of exercise lead us to believe that exercise is at the top of counselors’ personal to-do lists. However, for many clinicians, the demands of work and home life get in the way of prioritizing exercise. In short, we struggle with the same challenges as many of our clients. Exercise is not only about hitting a number weight-wise or fitting into your skinny jeans. Rather, it is a component of a healthy lifestyle with the purpose of improving our body systems so that we may live long, happy, and healthy lives. The following tips can help set you up for success as you begin planning regular exercise into your life.
As counselors, we know that people build resilience when they consider how others can be resources to them. Exercising is no exception. Identify counselor colleagues and friends who also want to engage in regular exercise. Encourage each other to prioritize physical health and cheer each other on as you work toward goals. Sign up for a race together, schedule a weekly bike ride, or join an intermural team. Be a willing buddy when a friend is timid about trying out a new exercise class and go together. Regularly check in with each other about your exercise habits and brainstorm what could make them better. Having exercise accountability partners can help exercise become a fun part of your regular lifestyle.
Use self-reflection to help you consider why you want to start exercising more. Understand that contemplation and planning are relevant steps in change that should not be discounted. Make a list of reasons for changing your current habits, and consider what small tasks, such as changing into exercise clothes before you leave the office, can help you find the motivation to start moving your body on that particular day. Pay attention to what activities seem the most interesting to you, and don’t be discouraged if it takes some searching to find the right few activities or sports that keep your interest. The important thing is to stick to a schedule even if you change activities. Trying new things can increase your excitement to incorporate movement into your daily life.
Set Measurable Goals
We tell clients to set specific, measurable, achievable, and time-oriented goals in our work with them, so our own exercise goals should be no different. If you keep track of your progress and are realistic about timelines and your abilities, then you’re more likely to keep up with exercise habits. Keep a record of physical activity and how you feel afterward and you’ll be likely to keep it up. Focus on small steps in addition to long-term goals. For example, if you want to run a 5k and haven’t run in years (or ever), consider a walking program to help you build your stamina over time. There are many free aps, like MyFitnessPal, to help you track your goals and connect with other exercisers.
If you feel pressed for time, don’t be afraid to get creative. A 20-minute walk at lunch, 10 minutes of strength training in the morning, or a weekend yoga session make a difference, and they’re likely to give you the energy and motivation to find more time to dedicate to exercise. Fitness trainer Lisa Payne suggests this 10 minute total body workout for people who are short on time and still want to have a burst of exercise during the day. If you want double benefits or need more motivation, download a fitness podcast so you can learn and move your body at the same time.
Believe in Your Actions
If counselors successfully use exercise to manage their mood and health, they are more likely to speak about exercise to their clients with energy and enthusiasm. They are also more likely to have the subject on their mind and incorporate it into their work with clients. If you want your clients to be more interested in how exercise can help their mood, then practicing what you preach may be the first important step.
If you feel overwhelmed about the thought of creating an exercise routine and aren’t sure how to start, consider using the same type of treatment or goal planning that you use with clients. Write down clear and measurable objectives and set a time frame. Make note of potential barriers and also identify the strengths that will help you reach your goal. Consider enlisting the help of a certified personal trainer and attend group fitness classes. As counselors we know that change can be slow and challenging, but it can also be exciting and rejuvenating. Consider how moving your body can build energy and enthusiasm in your work and in your life.
Dr. Michele Kerulis is faculty with Counseling@Northwestern and specializes in counseling athletes, lifestyle, and wellness. Dr. Kerulis is the Midwest Region Representative to the ACA Governing Council and an award winning clinician. Tweet @michelekerulis