Whenever 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 my feet, the wind at my back, and sweat dripping down my brow. I plug my earphones into my iPhone, tap on the Spotify icon, and allow the music 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 feelings of anger, giving into the temptations of tears, or running on the fumes of my anxiety. I’m out of breath and my heart is racing, but I’m okay. I’m content. I’m happy again.
This isn’t a fancy trick I perform or some weird quality I’m lucky enough to have—instead, it’s a scientifically proven approach to relieving anxiety, stress, and other negative feelings. That’s right, there is a direct link between physical and mental health. And while we often separate the two, they really go hand in hand: poor physical health can increase the risk of developing mental health problems, just as poor mental health can negatively affect physical health and increase the risk of various conditions. According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF):
Depression leads to…
- A 50% increase in the risk of death from cancer
- A 67% increase in the risk of death from heart disease
Schizophrenia leads to…
- 3x the risk of death from respiratory disease
- 2x the risk of death from heart 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. And it’s your job to utilize these two areas to your benefit.
Prioritizing Physical Activity
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 who just wants to try something new.
- Dancing: This one’s easy! Simply turn on the radio in your room and jam out. Or, pick up a new dance class: there’s swing dancing, salsa, ballet, Zumba, hip-hop, and plenty more to choose from.
- Playing video games: There are tons of video games out there that require you to be active, such as Wii Fit, Xbox Fitness, Just Dance, and Zumba Fitness. Instead of sinking into the couch and getting finger cramps from pressing the buttons on your controller, stand up and give one of these a try.
- Joining a recreational 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.
Maintaining a Healthy Diet
Eating nutritious foods is also crucial to feeling your best and maintaining good health. This means eating a balanced diet that consists 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 disorders, such as depression. Here are a few foods that improve mental health and work to protect us from certain illnesses:
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.
2) 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 some time in the sun, eating salmon or tuna, and also from drinking milk and orange juice (which have Vitamin D added).
3) 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 wherever and whenever you can, and introduce nutritious, mentally-beneficial foods into your diet. Your body, your brain, and your heart will thank you.