Marrying Physical and Mental Health

Are you aware of how your physical and mental health are related? When your mental health is suffering, it’s likely your physical health does as well. The same goes for the reverse. These two facets of a person need to work together to provide optimal functioning of our minds and bodies. 

Connections Between Physical and Mental Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as wellness physically, mentally, and socially. One cannot be considered healthy simply because one is free of disease. The relationship between physical and mental health can be cyclical:

  • Poor mental health leads to a greater risk for chronic physical illness

  • Poor physical health leads to a greater risk for chronic mental illness

So, how do you break the cycle?

Physical Exercise

We all know that exercise is not only good for our bodies but our minds as well. However, when we’re living with depression, getting out of bed and moving our bodies can seem like the hardest thing in the world to do.

The fact is, our mental health can be one of the biggest hurdles we have to overcome in order to work on our physical health. Total Health and Fitness recognize the role of the mind when it comes to physical fitness, and they have some suggestions for overcoming mental hurdles HERE.

Depression is one of the most common mental disorders affecting people in the US. Symptoms of depression do’nt just include feeling “sad.” They can manifest in several other physical ways:

  • Suppressed immune system

  • Insomnia

  • Excessive fatigue

  • Loss of appetite

  • Increased appetite

  • Lack of concentration

  • Sluggishness

When you’re experiencing these symptoms, it can be difficult to carry out the actions that can make them better. 

Physiological Benefits of Exercise

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a study and found that the risk of major depression was reduced by 26% when participants logged 15 minutes of running (or one hour of walking) each day. Maintaining an exercise routine also reduced the risk of relapsing into depressive episodes.

Why Exercise Makes Us Feel Better

What, exactly, makes us feel better mentally during and after exercise? For one, exercise increases the amount of oxygen circulating through our cardiovascular systems, which leads us to feel energized. Here’s what else is happening:

  • Neurotransmitters called endorphins and endocannabinoids are released

  • Dopamine is released

  • Brain is oxygenated

These chemical reactions to exercise help block pain in our bodies, and increase feelings of euphoria or pleasure. Dopamine also helps regulate heart rate and can promote healthy sleep cycles.

Exercise also increases neuroplasticity in our brains, which is the brain’s ability to respond to stimuli. The more we exercise, the better we may be at learning new things, and/or retaining current abilities or skills. Also, a more oxygenated brain is a healthier brain; when we exercise, the increased oxygen flow to our brains helps improve cognitive function, as well as self-control impulses.

Exercise can also reduce the production of stress hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline. With less stress coursing through our bodies and more dopamine, it’s no wonder we feel so good after a workout.

Treating Addiction with Exercise

When living with addiction, a person is repeatedly engaging in behaviors that trigger dopamine release. As the brain and body get used to the big hits of dopamine, it stops feeling satisfied by the activity. You can learn more about the biology of addiction from Corner Canyon Counseling, but the gist of it is that, eventually, the substance or activity is no longer enough to satisfy the craving for dopamine. 

Some experts believe that exercise can aid in addiction recovery. Coupled with therapy to help understand the root cause of the addictive behavior, exercise can act as a stand-in for the addictive substance or activity. When attending rehab, for example, you may be encouraged to exercise as a form of treatment. The Recovery Village Indianapolis and other rehab villages like it will always encourage exercise as it can help to improve mood and release dopamine, helping to combat withdrawal symptoms.

Even if someone is not exercising in place of the addictive behavior, studies show that regular exercise during treatment can lessen the symptoms of withdrawal. As long as exercise doesn’t become the new addiction, it can be a vital tool on the road to recovery.

Mental Health Measures

We’ve discussed how physical heath can promote mental health, but what about the reverse? How can good mental health improve our physical health?

If you’re living with a chronic illness, it can be hard to muster the energy and stamina to be physically active. Whether it’s poor circulation, arthritis, diabetes, these issues and more can mentally wear you down and prevent you from focusing on physical health. Here are some tips for fostering your mental health even in times of trial.

Talk to Someone

Ideally, you should turn to a trained counselor or psychiatrist from Serenity Mental Health Centers (or a similar clinic in your area) to help you sort through what you’re living with and experiencing. It can not only be validating to discuss your problems, but the act of saying things out loud is cathartic for many. Additionally, talking therapy is a means for discovering tools to further improve your mental health.

If you’re not in a place where you can regularly see a therapist, at the very least stay connected with people who care about your wellbeing. Schedule regular get-togethers or phone calls so you can have conversations with others. Spending time with loved ones is a big mood booster.

Maybe you don’t feel comfortable talking about your troubles with someone yet. If so, write down what’s bothering you. Putting pen to paper can help release pent-up thoughts, which reduces stress, anxiety, and depression.

Log Gratitude

You don’t have to see the world through rose-colored glasses, but noting things you’re grateful for every day can help your mental health. Regularly expressing gratitude can lower stress and feelings of depression, which might make it easier to get outside and take a walk around the neighborhood. You could mentally list what you’re grateful for, or write it in a notebook at the end of each day.

Do What You’re Good At

If you’re chronically ill, it can be easy to focus on everything you can’t do, or can’t do in a way you used to. To help your mental wellbeing, focus on something you still excel at. It might be related to your work or it could be a hobby; whatever it is, the sense of accomplishment may be just what you need to work on something new.


Studies show our mental health is greatly affected by our social media use. It’s easy to compare our lives with the highlight reels posted online every day. Make it a habit to unplug for periods of time so you can live your own life, or interact with people in real life. 

Perhaps regularly implementing some of these mental health measures will help you work up to exercising, which is another aide to improving mental health. If you’re not sure how to get in a place mentally to allow yourself to work on physical health, it may be time to reach out to an expert.

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