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The Link Between Physical and Mental Health

When I’m having a really bad day, all I want to do is slip on my neon Nike sneakers and dart out the door—to feel the gravel beneath me, the wind at my back, and sweat dripping down my brow. I plug my earphones into my iPhone, tap on the Pandora icon, and allow the sound and my legs to take over. By the time I’m done, the bad doesn’t seem so bad anymore. I’m no longer losing myself to the wrath of anger or on the verge of tears. I’m out of breath and my heart is beating out of my chest, but I’m okay again.

While we often separate physical and mental health, they actually have a direct relationship: poor physical health can increase the risk of developing mental health problems, just as poor mental health can harm physical health and increase the risk of some conditions. According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF):

Depression leads to…

  • 50% increased risk of death from cancer.
  • 67% increased risk of death from heart disease.

Schizophrenia leads to…

  • 3x the risk of death from respiratory disease
  • double the risk of death from hearth disease.

This is due to the fact that people with mental health conditions are not typically given the physical healthcare they deserve; they’re statistically less likely to receive regular checks on blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight, which can detect early signs of physical health conditions. These individuals also aren’t offered help as often to improve certain physical factors, such as reducing alcohol intake and eating better. But as mentioned previously, physical factors, such as exercise and diet, are just as important and can influence mental health:

Exercise

Physical activity is proven to not only keep you physically healthy but mentally healthy as well.

Research shows that doing any form of exercise impacts the release and uptake of “feel-good” chemicals or endorphins in the brain. This explains why I turn to running and feel so much better after I’ve put my legs to work. But running isn’t the only form of exercise capable of these results. Here’s a list of activities that get your body moving and allow you to have some fun at the same time:

  • Rock climbing: Rock climbing is one of the best full-body workouts—it puts your arms, your forearms, your back, and your legs to work. This is a great way to exercise for any adrenaline-junkies, or even someone that just wants to try something new.
  • Dancing: Dancing is obviously a great workout, but it’s also a very diverse one. You can simply turn on the radio in your room and jam out, or you can pick from a variety of dance classes and give one a whirl: these include swing dancing, salsa, ballet, Zumba, tango, hip-hop, and so on. The list never ends.
  • Fixing up the house: Doing chores around the house or in the yard can actually be a rather effective exercise. Sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, trimming the bushes, gardening—this all involves a good amount of movement and can absolutely break a sweat. You can even turn it up a notch and see how fast you can finish cleaning the kitchen or fixing up the front yard.
  • Playing video games. There’s a good amount of video games out there that require you to be active, such as Wii Fit, Just Dance, and Dance Dance Revolution. So instead of sinking into the couch and getting finger cramps from swiftly pressing the buttons on your controller, stand up and try one of these alternatives.
  • Joining a sports team. A lot of us leave our favorite sports in our high school or college days, but we don’t have to. There are plenty of rec. leagues out there for all ages, which allow you to not only revisit your beloved sport, but meet new people and get active.

Diet

Eating nutritious foods is also crucial to feeling your best. This means eating a balanced diet consisting of proteins, good fats and carbs, vitamins, and minerals. The food we put into our bodies can directly impact the development as well as the management of multiple mental health conditions, including depression and Alzheimer’s. Here are a few foods that improve our mental health and work to protect us from certain mental illnesses:

  • Folate: A diet high in folate is linked to a lower risk of developing depression. You can increase your folate intake by eating lots of leafy greens, such as spinach, as well as fruits, beans, nuts, and whole grains.
  • Vitamin D: Studies have shown that people with a Vitamin D deficiency have higher rates of depression and an increased risk of heart attacks. So, go get your Vitamin D! You can get it from spending time under the sun, eating salmon or tuna, and also from drinking milk and orange juice (which have Vitamin D added).
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3s are packed with benefits: they may be effective in treating depression, appear to stabilize mood, may help reduce the risk for certain cancers, and can boost the effectiveness of antidepressants, to name a few. These fatty acids can be found in oily fish, such as salmon or trout, as well as walnuts, olive oil, and green leafy vegetables.

It’s important to prioritize both your mental health and your physical health, as they work together to provide you with your best life. So, try to get in exercise whenever and wherever you can, and introduce nutritious, mentally-beneficial foods into your diet. Your body, your brain, and your heart will thank you.

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