Physical activity is known to have many beneficial effects on physical health. What if being active also had a positive impact on psychological well-being? Considering we have been in and out of lockdown for most of 2020 and 2021, the Mental and Physical health connection should be well known for those of you that got up and active as a way of much-needed escapism.
Mental health problems are part of the daily reality of many of us Brits. According to mind.org, about 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health condition every year. More than 25 people report a specific diagnosis of different mental health conditions every week in the UK. This is attributed to several factors(How Common Are Mental Health Problems?, n.d.).
In addition to low income and unemployment, poor mental health, constant sitting, and lack of exercise are among the ten most important factors that cause a great disease burden in Western societies and worldwide. This applies to the general population, the elderly, and the chronically ill of all ages (including children). The Government will shortly be launching a new scheme to incentivise people into fitness, so they ultimately help Britain get fitter and become less of a burden on the already overwhelmed NHS. Obesity and it’s associated diseases have been projected to cost the NHS an estimated £9.7 billion by 2050 (gov.uk).
In epidemiological studies, sedentary lifestyles and constant sitting are the main risk factors for lifestyle-related diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, high blood pressure, or type 2 diabetes. In addition, it has been estimated that the mortality rate in poor physical fitness is 2 to 5 times higher than in physically fit people. This kind of lifestyle is also linked to poor mental health.
Physical activity is an ideal way to counter and take charge of specific mental health problems, either reducing or eliminating the symptoms of a mental problem. It wasn’t the only solution I needed when I overcame addiction and the anxiety I had been living with most of my life, but it certainly gave me a sense of purpose and made me feel good about myself. Taking out stress through the use of exercise is an incredibly powerful habit to get into!
The Mental and Physical Health Connection explained
Physical and mental health are not independent of each other, nor are the effects of physical activity on physical and mental health. It’s been particularly important during the pandemic to ensure that people with and without a history of lifestyle-related illnesses or mental disorders remain physically active and get enough exercise not to impair their physical but also mental health and well-being in the long term. My personal experience is that I have never had one client at Addicted2Life, turn around and say, ‘that was awful, I feel terrible’. Every client always feels better after a workout and those clients who keep up regular exercise always report back about how much better they feel in mind and body which showcases the mental and physical health connection in practice! A strong body leads to a strong mind! You can’t have good mental health, without good physical health and vice versa.
According to the WHO (World Health Organization), mental health is a state of good health where one can get fulfilment, control normal life stresses, carry out productive activities, and contribute to his community life(Mental Health, n.d.).
Mental health is an integral part of the general state of health of the individual. It is essential for his survival since it determines behaviour, perception, way of thinking, communicating, and understanding. Poor mental health can prevent a person from functioning and fulfilling themselves. Knowing that regular physical activity has positive effects on mental health needs to be promoted from the roof tops! People are becoming lazier, more unhealthy and obesity is on the rise. The graph from gov.uk below shows how bad the current situation is and how important it is that we get people to understand the importance of the mental and physical health connection in helping alleviate stress on the NHS.
The Benefits of Physical Activity on Mental Health
These benefits are undeniable, even if they are less known than those concerning physical health. It seems that the greater the pleasure associated with physical activity, the better the psychological well-being. The important thing is, therefore, to choose physical activities corresponding to individual preferences and life circumstances. For me, it’s golf, Muay Thai and weight lifting. For others, it’s CrossFit, tennis, cardio, rugby, football and a hole host of other new and exciting ways of getting active. We are spoilt for choice in the UK for what we have access too.
How do you improve the mental and physical connection? Here are the benefits of physical activities on mental health:
Physical Exercise Regulates Mood
Several studies show that physical activity increases neurotransmitters, including serotonin with antidepressant properties and endorphin responsible for the feeling of well-being, even more so if it is combined with outdoor practice. I know from experience, exercise is a great way to feel good about yourself without having to spend any money!
Exercise Promotes Quality Sleep
Exercise helps regulate the wake/sleep cycle and reduce anxiety and stress. These two factors have beneficial effects on sleep.
Exercise Increases Energy Levels
Physical activity contributes to a healthy heart and lungs. The healthier they are, the more efficiently they work. And the more energy we have to carry out our daily activities …
Exercise Reduces Social Isolation
Physical activity can give us the energy and mood we need to make social contacts. A simple smile from your training partner can help break social isolation.
Exercise Fosters Feelings of Pride and Increases Self-Esteem
Since physical activity is peppered with achieving small goals and challenges, it contributes to a sense of pride and self-esteem.
You can also see our other article on “6 Mental Health Benefits of Regular Exercise”.
What Is the Recommended Level of Physical Activity?
To notice benefits on mood and well-being, you don’t have to be a high-level athlete! Daily sessions of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical exercise lasting 15 to 30 minutes are sufficient to provide the desired benefits, for example: walking, running, and cycling. You can therefore aim for the following objective: “short, but regular.”
It is also possible to carry out a physical activity lasting 60 minutes at a light intensity, for example, gardening. The important thing is to start physical activity gradually and adopt a practice that fits well into your routine. Note: the greater the volume of physical activity, the greater the benefits. Be careful to avoid overwork and overtraining!
The Relationship Between Physical Activity and Mental Health
Physical exercise acts on the nervous and endocrine systems, which are closely linked to mental health. The calming effect of exercise would be felt more intensely in stressed or anxious people and sedentary people. My top tip for clients who suffer with anxiety, improve your mental and physical health connection by training first thing. You are setting a powerful intention by getting up, getting active and firing up your mind and body for the day ahead.
After about 30 minutes of more intense exercise, the soothing effect doubles as a euphoric sensation. This sensation comes mainly from the secretion of endorphins, also called pleasure hormones, whose euphoric, relaxing, and analgesic action resembles opium, morphine, or heroin. The longer and more intense the exercise, the greater the amount of endorphins released. Thus, the brain can produce up to five times more endorphins during exercise than at rest. Be careful about overexercising though as we can become addicted to the gym and it’s important to promote balance in how we train. Plus our bodies can get exhausted from overtraining and it has the opposite impact of making us feel better, it actually dents our mental and physical health connection by making us really tired all the time.
During moderate to high-intensity exercise, another mechanism kicks in to promote a balanced mood: the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine. People with depression tend to have lower levels of serotonin and dopamine than the norm. Exercise is therefore key in helping people overcome depression. Addicted2Life is built on the foundation that exercise helped me out of suicidal depression, along with counselling at the time, so I will always advocate exercise for those going through depression. Yes, it might feel impossible, but simply moving for 10 minutes more a day, for a walk, jog or whatever you want to do will change your whole mood.
Thus, several studies show that physical activity improves psychological well-being, the management of stress, and mental activity (such as decision-making, forecasting, or short-term memory), which reduces anxiety and promotes healthy sleep rhythms. Clinical trials have shown that exercise can be part of the treatment for depression. In older people, physical activity may also help reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Mind has released helpful resources on physical activity and mental health which you can access here.
Top Tips for Improving your Mental and Physical Health Connection
Taking care of your physical and mental well-being is essential for improved body functioning. The following are top tips for better physical and mental health:
- Regular exercise- 4 to 5 days a week
- Healthy diet- Eat more fruits, vegetables and protein!
- Quality sleep- 7 to 8 hours daily
- Nature walks
- Speak to a trained counsellor for mental health challenges
Regular, moderate-intensity physical activity appears to be an effective intervention in alleviating depressive symptoms in people with clinical depression. In addition, 150 minutes of weekly physical activity at medium intensity seem to have such a strong effect.
Regarding the link between physical activity and decreased anxiety, 20 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise seems to work better than high-intensity resistance training. For example, aerobic activity for 20 to 40 minutes can reduce mild anxiety for a period of 2 to 4 hours. Programs that last at least ten weeks and preferably 15 weeks lead to the most significant reductions in anxiety. It is not necessary to perform high-intensity exercises to elicit beneficial effects.
In all cases, for safety reasons, it is important to be well supervised from the start by a health professional and to ensure follow-up to maintain perseverance. For this, establishing an action plan with objectives and stages to meet is essential. If you’re ready to take action, Addicted2Life are able to design a program to suit your goal, track your progress, and make changes as needed.
A study by the University of Ulm examined the recommendations for exercise and physical activity to prevent mental health and well-being during the corona pandemic. The selected individual exercises required using the arm and leg muscles for 8 to 16 minutes per exercise unit. Individually suitable exercises could be chosen. The training could also be carried out under lockdown conditions in the home environment(Herbert et al., 2020).
The result of the study: A six-week training intervention led to a significant improvement in depression, a reduction in anxiety, a reduction in perceived stress due to insecurity, and an alleviation of the general state of stress and increased well-being of the participants.
This study confirms the importance of physical activity for mental health prevention, especially during the pandemic.
Benefits of Aerobic Exercise for Improved Mental Health
Training is essential at the moment, to keep us sane during the pandemic and even I started running during the first lockdown! I felt so much better for running and it was completely different to my usual weight lifting workout. It’s healthy to try exercises that might scare you as it helps you push out of your comfort zone and become more resilient with your mental health. In particular, aerobic exercise, such as running, cycling, or swimming, which focuses on endurance and cardiovascular fitness, has beneficial effects on your mental and physical health connection.
Aerobic exercise stimulates the immune system, reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes, has antidepressant effects, and acts as a buffer against chronic stress by facilitating physical recovery and reducing perceived symptoms of stress. The WHO recommendation for health promotion in healthy adults is a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week.
Nutrition and Mental Health
Apart from physical activity, nutrition is another essential aspect of physical health. It also plays a pivotal role in your mental physical health. The UK Mental Health Foundation reports that about 60% of people who don’t experience mental health conditions eat fruits or take fruit juice daily.
People who complain about mental problems eat less healthy and more unhealthy foods (chips, fast food, alcohol). What nutritional factors affect our mental state, and is it possible to influence it by consuming certain foods? (Feeding-Minds.Pdf, n.d.)
To maintain blood sugar levels, you need to eat regularly throughout the day. Nutritionists recommend eating at least three times a day. Lack of food, especially breakfast, leads to low blood sugar levels, and as a result, low mood, irritability, and fatigue.
Oriental cuisine has fewer high-sugar foods and whole grains, nuts, beans, lentils, vegetables, and fruits. Sugary foods are digested faster and enter the bloodstream. At first, this leads to a burst of energy, but as the body increases the production of insulin, the feeling of fatigue sets in.
Whole grains, legumes, nuts are digested more slowly and do not cause mood swings. You can see our article on ‘healthy snacks’ to get an idea of what’s best to eat. I personally use the MyProtein website as they have the best selection of low sugar bars which are ideal for healthy snacks during the day. Use my MyProtein code ‘seanfitpt‘ for an exclusive 37% off your total.
Try to vary your diet to ensure that you get all the micronutrients you need. The more varied your diet, the more likely you are to get all the nutrients you need.
Fluid deficiency has serious mental health consequences. Even mild dehydration can affect our feelings and behaviour.
An adult on average loses about 2.5 litres of water per day, mainly through the lungs as water vapour, through the skin, and the kidneys in urine. Failure to take enough fluids to make up for these losses will make you experience dehydration symptoms, loss of concentration, irritability, and decreased mental performance. If you need a reminder about drinking water, purchase this bottle from Amazon as it will remind you throughout the day!
Some people use caffeinated beverages such as coffee, cola, energy drinks, and tea to increase their energy levels. In large quantities, caffeine increases blood pressure and anxiety, depressive symptoms, and sleep problems.
In addition, caffeine has a diuretic effect and therefore leads to dehydration. For this reason, you should limit your intake of caffeinated beverages and drink other liquids such as pure water, fruit juices, and herbal teas. By the way, chocolate also contains caffeine.
Alcohol has a depressing effect on the brain. It is also a toxin that is deactivated in the liver. During the detoxification process, the body expends thiamine, zinc, and other nutrients, which can deplete your body’s reserves.
Lack of thiamine and other vitamins is a common symptom in heavy drinkers and causes low mood, irritability, aggressive behaviour, and more severe and long-term mental problems.
Being Sober, I don’t have this problem anymore and my mood is more consistent and controllable now as a result. If alcohol is a problem for you, get in touch to have a FREE chat by clicking here.
Numerous studies have linked consumption of certain nutrients to the prevalence of various types of depression. For example, folate, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and tryptophan have been shown to reduce symptoms of depression. Similar findings were made for the consumption of zinc and vitamins B1, B2, and C.
In recent years, numerous studies have revealed the effects of diet on people’s mental health. Several researchers have found that those who follow a diet rich in added sugars and processed foods are at risk of developing anxiety and depression.
It is good to keep in mind that there is no better diet than others for mental well-being. Some feeding patterns appear to be better than others. You should, therefore, come up with a proper diet plan that will ensure you are in a perfect state of mental health all the time.
Conclusion – The Mental and Physical Health Connection
Good physical health, characterised by regular exercise and a healthy diet, is essential in ensuring a strong positive link between your mental and physical health connection. Exercise releases endorphins, a “good” chemical that helps us relax and feel happy.
Regular exercise is an essential factor in getting rid of depression. Exercise outdoors in sunlight is especially valuable as it affects the pineal gland and directly improves mood. A healthy diet is also vital for improved cognitive function. You should, therefore, combine the right diet with quality exercise to ensure you are in a perfect state of health all the time.
If you need help improving your mental and physical health connection, Addicted2Life offers both counselling and expert personal training packages. Contact us here to arrange a FREE consultation.