How Physical Wellbeing Impacts Your Mental Health
We've all heard that exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet and getting a good night's sleep are important, but just how important are these health factors really? Well, from a mental health perspective, they are vital to our overall wellbeing (and your doctor will surely agree, too)! In this post, we will dive deeper into why physical health is important for good mental health and teach you practical tips to start living healthier.
Why Physical Health is Important for Good Mental Health
We often think that our physical health and mental health are separate, when in reality, they are very much connected and can affect each other in reciprocal ways.
Research has shown that people with physical illnesses are more likely to suffer from mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. As well, if someone has a preexisting mental health condition, poor physical health seems to make it worse, and vice versa. So not only does poor physical and mental health contribute to the onset of broader issues, but it can also worsen preexisting issues.
Overall, not taking care of either your mental or physical health can ultimately fuel a pretty vicious cycle of chronic stress, aches and pains (that are sometimes unexplained as mental health issues can manifest somatically- read more here), and frustration and defeat in not seeing the progress you want to see in either area. (Ever try to lose weight but you cant? Yep, that might be stress, anxiety or depression! Or ever try to alleviate your anxiety or depression but therapy "isn't working?" Poor health habits may be at play).
Basic Pillars of Health and Wellbeing
There are 4 basic pillars of physical wellbeing: exercise, nutrition, sleep, and stress management. Building a lifestyle around these 4 pillars will make you feel better inside and out.
Let’s explore some practical ways to improve your overall health using these fundamental pillars:
Study after study has shown that exercising reduces your risk of mental health disorders while also improving your physical health. Exercise boosts your mood by releasing endorphins in your body, often referred to as the “feel-good hormones.” These endorphins give you a high similar to morphine, except in a totally healthy way. How cool is that?
Here’s a list of health benefits associated with regular physical activity:
Improved heart health
Boosted self-esteem and self-efficacy
Reduced body fat
Increased concentration; no more "brain fog"
Lower blood pressure
Now, a lot of people have this misconception that they need to do intense workouts at the gym to derive the multitude of benefits of exercising. In truth, you have several options available. While lifting weights or running seem to be the most popular ones, you can take up other physical activities like dancing, swimming, playing a sport, biking, or even walking, as long as you're moving and your heart rate is elevated.
Just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise 3 days a week is enough to improve your mental health. The best part? These 30 minutes don’t need to be continuous. You can break them up into three sessions of 10 minutes each.
Tips for incorporating physical activity into your life:
Choose a fun physical activity, like dancing or aerobics
Block time in your schedule for exercising; make exercise a priority!
Start small. Try going for a 10-minute walk, and slowly increase the time and intensity over weeks
Try home workouts or join a gym; here is a great site for home workouts
Experiment with a variety of exercises so that you don’t get bored. Check out this link for different exercises and movements
Find an exercise buddy—your partner, a friend, or a relative
Reduce friction by preparing for your workout beforehand. For example, lay out your gym clothes the night before a morning workout
People often think that what you eat only affects your body. But the fact is, your diet influences your mental wellbeing too. Some benefits of a healthy diet include improved cardiovascular function, low cholesterol, better mood, increased gut health, and enhanced cognitive functions.
A meta-analysis of 21 studies found that “a dietary pattern characterized by high intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy and antioxidants and low intakes of animal foods was apparently associated with a decreased risk of depression” while the Western-style diet which often includes processed meat and high-fat dairy products was associated with an increased risk of depression.
Now, we aren't suggesting you ditch sugary and processed foods altogether, because- let's be honest here, treating yourself to chips, candies, and fast-food is bound to happen! But, generally eating healthy and a balanced diet is key to your overall wellbeing and preventing mental health issues.
What to include in your diet to improve mental health:
Omega-3 fatty acids- Omega-3 fatty acids are known to improve mood and increase brain functioning. They are found in abundant quantities in oily fish.
Salmon, trout, and tuna are all oily fish. These fish are rich in EPA and DHA, which are omega-3 fatty acids. If you’re not too keen on eating fish, there are fish oil supplements also available.
Some other sources of omega-3 fatty acids are chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds. Folic acid- Also known as folate, folic acid plays an important role in making red blood cells and DNA, your genetic code. Folate deficiency is a risk factor for depression. You can increase your folate intake by eating a lot of leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, and lettuce. Antioxidants- Antioxidants prevent cellular damage. Our body produces some antioxidants, but not others, which means that we have to consume them through our diet.
Some foods rich in antioxidants are dark chocolate (yum!), blueberries, and beans.
Have you ever tried pulling an all-nighter? Then you’re probably familiar with the fuzziness, irritability, and lack of concentration you feel during the day. Sleep is a crucial component of our physical and mental wellbeing, yet it’s the one most often ignored.
Our brains need sleep to flush out the toxins that build up while we’re awake. Sleep is also necessary to solidify our memories and strengthen neural connections. Research shows that sleep deprivation has effects similar to being drunk. When you’re awake for more than 17 hours, your performance is similar to someone who has had a few pints of beer.
Yeah, pulling those all-nighters is a really bad idea.
So, how do you ensure a good night's sleep?
Here are some tips to improve your sleep quality:
Have a sleep routine, which means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
Avoid working or reading in bed. This is to prevent your brain from associating bed with mental activity, instead of sleep (for all you "overthinkers" in the world- this tip is crucial)
Limit alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine before bed or in the evening as these are all shown to disrupt sleep
Choose high quality mattresses, pillows, and bedsheets that provide comfort
Stop using any screens at least 30 minutes before bed. The blue light from your devices can have a disruptive effect on your sleep, and it also is mentally stimulating making it hard for our brains to "shut off"
No napping! But if you're going to take a nap, limit it to 20-30 minutes and not too close to bedtime
Journal at least 1hr or more before bed to unload and process all of the stress and worries from your day so that you aren't dwelling on it when trying to sleep
If you struggle to unwind your body and mind, try a guided meditation to help keep your mind off your stress and focused on relaxing and clearing your mind (Here is a recommended free app for your smartphone to listen to meditations)
Whether you've been stressed out due to an important deadline at work, financial issues or relationship tensions, all of us have experienced stress at some points in our lives, and it typically goes away after the problem is resolved. So stress is a normal part of life that can't necessarily be avoided and isn't always a chronic issue.
In fact, some amount of stress is actually good for us. This is known as eustress. It keeps us excited about life and makes us feel motivated. Without it, life would seem dull and boring to us.
However, when you’re constantly feeling stressed, it compromises your wellbeing. Chronic stress can lead to feelings of tiredness, irritability, emotional exhaustion, anxiety, and low moods, as well as taking a huge toll on your body.
Some people have different tolerance levels for handling stress, and effective coping starts with a sound stress management routine that encompasses all aspects of your life, including diet, exercise, sleep, work-life balance, socializing, and recreational activities. Altogether, by managing your stress effectively you will have greater control in your life and be able to spend time doing the things that lift you up, rather than add to your stress.
Stress management tips for better mental health:
Get active: Exercising changes your hormone responses and affects the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, thereby reducing stress. Sweat the stress out!
Maintain social relationships: Spending quality time with friends and family can be a natural stress-reliever and also strengthens our support networks so we can lean on others during difficult times.
Make time for your hobbies: Set aside time every week to work on things that you find interesting and enjoyable, like reading, crafting, writing, sports etc. (Watching your favourite TV show does count, in moderation...with the occasional Netflix binge!)
Meditate: Meditation is one of the most effective techniques of stress management. Spend at least 5 minutes alone in a quiet room, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. Regular meditation will make you feel more calm, relaxed, and confident in your ability to handle stress.
Stick to a schedule: We have to schedule our priorities, not prioritize our schedule...meaning that we have to get intentional with our time and make life count. If we only engage in self-care when we have "free time" we will hardly get any time for ourselves as work, kids, and other responsibilities often pop up and take over. So, make sure that you have a good routine that allows for work, family time, and YOU time!
Talk it out: If you're feeling stressed and need support but don't want to "burden" your loved ones, speak to a therapist who can help you process and cope with your stress and work on developing a stress management plan with you.
To improve your mental health, you have to start with the basics of healthy living.
Putting the above advice into action will help lead you to a fuller, happier, and more content life.
You do not have to start making these changes all at once. Start with one pillar and tweak a few changes here and there. The key is creating sustainable lifestyle habits that you will slowly develop and enhance with time. Tackling too much, too soon will only set you up for defeat and disappointment.
When you decide to make these 4 pillars your priority, you’ll see huge improvements in both your physical and mental health over time. And, it won't feel so effortful to make them a priority once you develop the habits and incorporate them seamlessly into your lifestyle.
If you are struggling in any of the areas discussed above, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Book a 15-minute free consultation call with a licensed therapist who will listen to your concerns and answer all your questions regarding therapy.