What are Therapeutic Mental Health Exercises and Why Include Them in Therapy?

Improve client learning and outcomes

Brian E. Bunnell, PhD
Kayla King, BA

Published:

March 1, 2022

Introduction

The most effective mental health treatment approaches include the use of therapeutic mental health exercises that promote learning and skill development. For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) involves therapists introducing and practicing therapeutic mental health exercises during sessions, asking clients to practice those exercises between sessions, and reviewing that practice during their next session [1]. These are important components of successful therapy because they allow clients to develop skills that improve cognitive, behavioral, and emotional functioning, and apply those skills in their daily lives, where they’re needed most [2]. In this post, we’ll define therapeutic exercises, give a few examples of effective therapeutic exercises, and provide some tips on using them in practice.

What are Therapeutic Mental Health Exercises?

Therapeutic mental health exercises are activities that individuals can engage in to improve cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning. Therapeutic exercises are usually introduced by therapists during therapy sessions to clients, who practice those exercises between sessions to improve their skill in using them. 

Why are Therapeutic Mental Health Exercises Important?

Therapeutic mental health exercises allow for a more action-oriented approach to therapy. Including them in therapy allows clients to learn helpful strategies that they can use outside of therapy to improve their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning. Treatments that include therapeutic mental health exercises, such as CBT, often result in improved outcomes compared to many other treatment approaches [3]. Further, if therapists ask clients to practice these exercises between therapy sessions the number of clients that improve following therapy can nearly double [4].

3 Real Examples of Effective Therapeutic Exercises

1) Self-Monitoring

Self-monitoring exercises involve clients keeping a record of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors on a daily basis. Self-monitoring is beneficial in many ways. For example, self-monitoring of emotions helps clients to see that their emotions fluctuate (e.g., that they aren’t always anxious), and therapists to track changes in those emotions over time. Self-monitoring has traditionally been completed using paper worksheets, while technology like Adhere.ly can automate the process.

2) Deep Breathing

Deep breathing exercises involve clients inhaling through their nose for several seconds and exhaling through their mouth for another several seconds, and repeating this process for several minutes. Deep breathing can be very helpful in reducing anxiety and stress. There are several variations of deep breathing exercises (e.g., belly breathing, roll breathing, 4-7-8 breathing) and therapists can find audio narrations by searching through YouTube or other similar websites. Alternatively, Adhere.ly has several animated and audio-narrated deep breathing exercises that therapists can use in-session, and send to their clients to practice during the week.

3) Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy exercises involve clients approaching feared situations in a controlled setting (e.g., social interactions in the case of social anxiety) and remaining in those situations until anxiety reduces to “baseline” levels. Exposure therapy exercises are beneficial for many clients because with repeated exposures, the anxiety that clients associate with the feared situation decreases to minimal levels. Similar to self-monitoring, exposure exercises are typically recorded on paper worksheets. Adhere.ly has automated exposure exercises that clients can complete during and between therapy sessions. 

Tips When Including Therapeutic Mental Health Exercises In Your Practice

Based on expert recommendations [5].

1) Introduce and practice therapeutic exercises in-session

  • Provide an overview and rationale for the exercise.
  • Discuss how the exercise supports treatment goals. 
  • Explain how the exercise is supported by empirical evidence.
  • Roleplay or practice the exercise with the client.

2) Ask clients to practice exercises between sessions

  • Decide on when, where, how often, and how long to practice the exercise.
  • Improve compliance by exploring potential barriers to practicing the exercise.
  • Come up with potential solutions and behavioral strategies to overcome barriers.

3) Review between-session practice during the client’s next session

  • Ask how the practice went (i.e., Did they practice? How much?).
  • Provide praise for practicing or attempts to practice exercises.
  • Explore what they learned from practicing.
  • Discuss if they used the information or skills from the exercise in any other situations during the week.
  • Problem-solve any barriers to practicing and plan strategies to overcome them.

Takeaways

All things considered, research suggests that the addition of therapeutic mental health exercises in therapy enhances its effectiveness, and clients who consistently adhere to completion of these assignments develop useful skills to improve mental health outcomes. Traditional means of finding therapeutic mental health exercises to practice with a client and send home with them takes up too much of a therapist’s valuable time. Adhere.ly has an array of digitized therapeutic mental health exercises, automated reminders, and monitoring solutions to save you time and improve client outcomes. Click the link below to sign up for free!

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References

[1] Beck JS. Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Second Edition: Basics and Beyond [Internet]. Guilford Press; 2011. Available from: Here

[2] Bunnell BE, Nemeth LS, Lenert LA, Kazantzis N. Barriers Associated with the Implementation of Homework in Youth Mental Health Treatment and Potential Mobile Health Solutions. Cognit Ther Res [Internet]. Springer; 2020; 45:272–286. Available from: Here

[3] Tolin DF. Is cognitive-behavioral therapy more effective than other therapies? A meta-analytic review. Clin Psychol Rev [Internet]. 2010 Aug; 30(6):710-720. Available from: Here

[4] Kazantzis N, Whittington C, Dattilio F. Meta-analysis of homework effects in cognitive and behavioral therapy: A replication and extension. Clin Psychol (New York) [Internet]. Wiley; 2010 Jun 8; 17(2):144–156. Available from: Here

[5] Kazantzis N, Deane FP, Ronan KR, L’Abate L. Using Homework Assignments in Cognitive Behavior Therapy [Internet]. Routledge; 2005. Available from: Here