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The Links Between Physical, Mental and Emotional Health
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward”. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thinking of exercising more? Here are some good mental and emotional health reasons you might like to consider. Less talked about than physical health, as a counsellor and psychotherapist, I know that mental and emotional health are equally important and inextricably linked. An Australian Aboriginal woman once told me to ‘go walkabout’, go for a walk, if ever I felt stressed, troubled or a need to take a spot check of my life. Invariably one does feel better, and have clearer perspectives after any physical exertion.This is not just coincidence. In fact, there is a whole host of positive mental and emotional benefits of regular exercise. Combined, these might amount to what are commonly known as peace of mind or a sense of wellbeing.
Stress or anxiety, strong emotions like anger, and negative states like feeling overwhelmed or not coping can be released and relieved through physical exercise. Positive mood states can be substituted for negative through the body releasing chemicals like dopamine (a reward chemical), endorphins and serotonin (happy hormones), and norepinephrine (which moderates the brain’s response to stress). Cravings, even those strong enough to be considered addictive, have also been shown to be alleviated through participating in exercise.
Other benefits of exercise include: better quality sleep, improved diet through the body desiring healthier food, a fortified immune system, and generally feeling more energised and productive. Brain neural growth, which enables better concentration, memory and capacity for learning and decision making, occurs through exercise too.
Physical activity can play a part in creating a more relaxed and positive outlook and attitude from which others can benefit too. In this regard, doing at least some of your exercise with other people feeds a basic human need for social interaction – crucial for mental and emotional health.
Self-perception and self-esteem are affected positively through engaging in exercise and activities with others; and mutual motivation – very helpful on those ‘hard to get going’ days, is also a benefit. In other words: it helps to be with others, it helps us to help others, and it helps others to help us.
Feeling better through engagement in physical exercise can add years to one’s life, and better quality years too! Mild to moderate depression have been shown to be alleviated, and relapse prevented, through engagement in regular physical exertion. A sense of empowerment and achievement can result from setting and attaining goals for an exercise regime; and perhaps a sense of competence, and even mastery, of physical activities is always a possibility when one’s mood is lifted.
Although stress and anxiety have not been proven to cause cancer for example, it is certainly known that they are associated with some cancers and other serious illnesses. Stress reduction has been definitively linked with recovery from cancer, cancer treatments, and the prevention of cancer returning however.
Having something enjoyable to turn to which can slow a busy mind and help break a cycle of stress, low mood and mental obsession is very important. Over-thinking or over-focusing on something, even if not overtly negative, can have a detrimental effect on one’s peace of mind. Thus, it is good to take time and space for exercise, even if just to unwind.
If possible, exercising in nature can add an extra dimension to the development of a sense of peace and wellbeing. It is also important to choose a form of exercise you enjoy and will look forward to doing. From a mental and emotional health perspective, enjoyed physical activity can enhance resilience through the imposition of routine, structure and discipline.
Remember: Action Precedes Motivation. In other words, even if you don’t really feel like exercising, get started and the motivation will follow. Enjoy!