How mental and physical health are intrinsically intertwined

In light of recent events, such as the tragic passing of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, mental health has once again been thrust into the spotlight.

How sad it is that it takes high-profile deaths to create conversation around this topic – a topic that deserves far more attention than the typical “how to get a bikini body” and “what to eat to lose weight in time for summer” articles classically found in every health magazine.

As someone who is not a licensed psychologist, therapist or mental health expert, please take this article for what it is – a well-researched piece of literature, intertwined with my personal experience.

Ready to take a dive off the deep end into some pretty heavy stuff?

The science

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness (44.7 million in 2016 – or roughly 18 percent of the adult population).

As seen in the chart below, the prevalence of mental illness is greater among women than men, and affects young adults aged 18-25 and adults 26-49 years old the most.

While mental health and exercise might not seem like they go hand-in-hand, for decades, studies have shown otherwise.

A 1985 study published by three doctors/professors reported mental health issues affected about 15 percent of the population at that time – and that was a “conservative estimate.”

I’ll skip through the scientific mumbo jumbo and get to the stuff you want to see: the benefits.

Essentially, in 1985, there weren’t a lot of studies done on mental health and exercise just yet, but nearly all research conducted proved one thing – working out, especially in groups, had a slew of health benefits. It also helps combat anxiety, stress, depression and even addiction.

In 2004, a UK study was published citing exercise as a treatment for mental health issues.

What I love most about this study is the elaboration on the history of exercise, which dates back to the Grecian times (enter: Olympic Games). Moving into the 18th and 19th centuries, Dr. Patrick Callaghan notes the integration of regular physical activity into certain populations:

“During the 18th century, the Manching Government in China launched a series of reforms that it called ‘The Self-Improvement Movement’. The purpose of these reforms was to introduce physical education and sports into educational curricula and make people healthier and fitter (Shuy 1975). In boarding schools in England in the early 19th century, exercise in the form of sports became a fundamental part of the education processes as to improve scholastic, as well as physical well-being (Smith 1975).”

Exercise as a treatment

A 1990 study reviewed an investigation of working out and depression, suggesting exercise improved depression by “changing people’s daily routine, increasing their interactions with others, helping them lose weight, participate in outdoor recreation and master difficult physical and psychological challenges.”

When it comes to anxiety, however, scientists and researchers have various opinions on the beneficial effects. Some say the body’s temperature is raised, therefore reducing muscle tension – called hermogenic hypothesis – simulating the feeling of a “nice bath.” Others cite the Opponents Process Model, which suggests exercise stimulates activity in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), where adrenaline levels are increased and results in an “arousing effect.”

Both opinions cite the physiological response from the body, and as someone who does indeed deal with quite a bit anxiety, I have reaped the positive benefits of regular exercise.

My experience with anxiety and working out

As a self-proclaimed “high performer” with perfectionist tendencies, working out has become my safe haven in my daily swirl of anxiety.

It’s not something I speak openly about, but if I’m being honest, I’ve struggled with it most of my life.

In high school, I remember getting stomach aches in class when I was asked to read out loud, even though I was a great public speaker and people enjoyed listening to me (hence my career in broadcast news). I realize this is a normal feeling to have in high school, or at any age, but the fact I would physically become ill as a result of simply speaking in front of my classmates, or have the feeling that everyone was talking behind my back or staring at me as I walked down the hallway, those are not normal feelings…and I still have them today.

To constantly be “on edge” is physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. Thank goodness social media wasn’t as all-encompassing then as it is now…I cannot even imagine growing up in the selfie age of Snapchat and FOMO. Poor kids.

The only release I felt in my entire day was my after school run, or workout class. It was the only time my mind turned off and went on autopilot – where I could just daydream about my future career, future family, what college would be like, and far off lands I wanted to travel to.

I realize this is likely a classic trait of escapism, but hey, as long as it’s healthy then I see no issue with it.

Working out has also improved my:

  • Work productivity

  • Social skills

  • Ability to manage stress

  • Self-esteem

  • Mood

Where to start

Simply put, exercising has a slew of scientific and biological side effects that will absolutely help you manage your mental health.

That said, creating a community where you can work out, eat healthy, talk about your feelings and share in life’s ups and downs is also essential in maintaining any healthy lifestyle!

Grab yourself a workout partner (or two, or more!) and aim to sweat at least once a week together. I typically like working out with a girlfriend on Saturdays since I try to work out with my fiancé during the work week (doesn’t always happen, but I’m trying!).

I also write out my daily workouts for the week on Sunday, which helps keep me accountable and makes it easier to manage stress levels knowing I have a plan in place to move my body every single day.

If you’re having trouble finding motivation, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or someone you trust to talk about what’s dragging you down.

If we’ve learned anything from the past week of headlines it’s this: you are never alone.