For far too long, physical health and mental health have often been regarded as distinct – treated and diagnosed separately, and split into issues of ‘mind’ and ‘body’. But is this really helpful?
While it’s true that one of the least helpful things one can say to someone suffering with clinical depression is ‘have you tried just going for a run?’, the link between good mental health and physical wellbeing is increasingly apparent. Several studies have proved that poor physical health can contribute to poor mental health, while good physical health can improve our state of mind. Going for a run won’t exactly cure clinical depression, but all the research suggests that regular exercise, healthy eating and getting enough sleep will be beneficial in the long term for anyone’s mental health and wellbeing.
By wellbeing, we are talking about self-esteem and functionality, being able to form and maintain healthy relationships and the ability to cope with life’s inevitable ups and downs, and the stress that comes with the downs. It can extend to a feeling of connectedness to our surroundings and other people, feeling valued, and having a sense of purpose and control over one’s life. Given the recent reports about the dire state of mental health among young people in Britain, there couldn’t be a better time to think about ways to improve your routine. The symbiosis of good physical and mental health can help us achieve an overall improved sense of wellbeing.
What constitutes physical activity?
Physical activity doesn’t just mean going for a run. It can include anything from walking, jogging, cycling, team sports, work around the house, outdoor play, games, yoga or even just walking up and down the stairs. You don’t need to join the gym to get regular exercise – it’s more of a lifestyle choice.
Most schools provide the opportunity for pupils to do regular exercise, however this will only be beneficial as part of a wider interest in physical health. Namely, recognising physical fitness as something positive for overall wellbeing, not merely something we ‘should’, ‘ought’ or ‘have’ to do.
It is recommended that older teenagers and adults should do a minimum 150 minutes of regular exercise per week, or 75 minutes of intense exercise. If you can find time for exercise on a daily basis, even better! In 2015, it is believed that only about 65.5% of men and 54% of women in the UK were getting the required levels of exercise.
What are the benefits?
Exercise releases endorphins, the brain’s ‘happy hormone’, associated with higher energy levels, sharper mental awareness and positive mood. This can be achieved by something as simple as a brisk ten minute walk, or anything else that expends energy and gets your muscles working.
Even gentle forms of exercise can improve self-esteem and reduce stress and anxiety. Research shows exercise can also help prevent the development of mental health problems, and improve the quality of life for people already suffering with mental health difficulties. Exercise can be used as part of treatment for depression, stress and anxiety-related illnesses; its benefits include being low-cost and available to anyone, as well as letting one feel empowered by taking a level of control over self-management. It has none of the stigma some people believe are attached to taking antidepressants (nor the potentially harmful side-effects), or seeking out help through therapy or counselling (which can also be very expensive, or unavailable for many months on the NHS). A study of employed adults revealed that those who were highly active had lower stress levels across the board than those who are not.
A study on mood after a period of physical activity (eg. going for a walk) against inactivity (eg. watching television) revealed that participants felt calmer, more content and more awake after physical activity. This can be particularly useful during the stressful revision period for students – breaking up seemingly endless revision hours with exercise can help improve concentration and energy levels, making the work time more productive!
The positive effect of exercise on mood works in both the short and long term. Citing several different studies, the Mental Health Foundation says: “Overall, research has found that low-intensity aerobic exercise – for 30-35 minutes, 3-5 days a week, for 10-12 weeks – was best at increasing positive moods (eg, enthusiasm, alertness).”
What about diet and sleep?
Eating right, and ensuring your body is getting the right balance of vitamins, nutrients, food groups and enough water can be key to good mental health. The food we eat can impact the development, management and even prevention of mental health conditions, including stress and depression. A good diet and healthy eating pattern is also connected to better energy levels and even improved brain function.
Similarly, getting enough sleep, and having a regular sleeping pattern, is key to improving overall physical and mental health. If you’re tired all the time, it’s harder to concentrate, you work less efficiently, and it becomes harder to find the time and energy to exercise and eat healthily. There is debate as to whether negative sleeping habits can be a cause or a symptom of mental health problems, but there is no debate that improving your sleep habits will improve your overall wellbeing! This is particularly important for adolescents, who typically need more sleep to keep up with their rapid physical and mental development.
How to improve current habits
It’s easy to say that there’s an important link between physical and mental health, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to alter long-established and negative habits. However, there are certain things anyone can do to make it easier for themselves:
Start slow – don’t push yourself too hard to start with, or it’s easier to burn out and give up after a short period of time.
Make time – be willing to commit to regular or semi-regular times for exercise, even if it means rejigging other commitments. All the better if you can incorporate it into your existing daily routine.
Be practical – do something that you think you can do, and doesn’t require too much additional time, effort or equipment to pick up. Choose an activity that suits you! Some people also prefer to be part of a team, or have an exercise partner for mutual support, so you can always try and find a friend willing to improve their own physical health as well.
For more information on the links between physical and mental health, as well as links to the studies cited in this blog, check out this article from the Mental Health Foundation. They have loads of fantastic information on mental health, and are dedicated to finding and addressing the sources of mental health problems.
Minerva works with experts in mental health and physical health, from fitness and nutrition to mentoring and child psychotherapy. See our Child Support Services page for more details.
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about everything that’s trending in education.
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