Most of us count our physical experiences and mental experiences as separate – mind and body are different parts of the greater sum that is you. It certainly can seem that way, but here’s the rub? real deal: we are, all of us, a whole unit. Our minds and bodies are inextricably linked, and one impacts the other.
Most of us recognize how stress, anxiety, grief, and mental exhaustion can influence the state of the body, even causing us to become sick. These are warning signals. “Stop! You’re going too hard, too fast. We are using your body as a signal that your mind needs tending.” Signals like this? They go both ways, and sometimes the best way to better our mental health is to invest time in our physical health.
Getting “hangry” is a great example. It’s approaching one o’ clock in the afternoon, you’ve been busy all day, and now you’re starting to get mad. You feel like no one helps you, you’re under-appreciated, things aren’t getting done as quickly as you want. As feelings of anger manifest, you direct them at external circumstances when, in actuality, they’re coming from inside. Specifically, from your stomach. The minute you get some nourishment, the anger subsides and you feel much better. Blaming and catastrophic thinking abruptly come to an end, and you resume your day with renewed vigour. Your hungry body used anger as a message: feed me!
Hanger is a comparatively mild example of how our bodies use emotions as a cry for attention. Left unchecked, the body resorts to more severe symptoms like anxiety and depression, and because we don’t usually think of our bodies and minds as one and the same we might find ourselves treating the symptom instead of the problem.
How do we spare ourselves from these experiences? The best solution is prevention. Regular exercise and a healthy diet (remembering that cheat meals are good for the soul, when consumed about 20% of the time) can keep us energized, optimistic, and content. Here are some of the ways our minds will thank us for taking care of our bodies:
Exercise releases endorphins. These are the hormones that make us feel happy. Physical activity signals the brain to release a dose of these joy-makers, and so it’s inevitable that moving makes us happier. You can capitalize on this biological engineering even with a brisk walk. It doesn’t take much! Bare minimum: 20 minute outdoor walk/day.
Regular exercise has been shown to reduce over-all stress levels. Our internalized worries seem to vent out of our bodies as we move – hence the expression “blowing off steam.” Not only this, but it also increases our ability to produce a chemical called norepinephrine. Don’t worry – you don’t have to be able to pronounce it to benefit from it. Basically, norepinephrine moderates our response to stress so that we become better at handling stressful situations. In our fast-paced world, you want as much of the stuff as you can get. This makes our productive exercise “intentional” ie directive workouts to release specific negative emotions and thoughts about our stress.
When your body moves, it changes. You might put on some muscle. You might drop a few pounds. It all depends on what kind of exercise you’re doing. But one way or another, you’ll likely start looking in the mirror and being pleasantly surprised by what you see. So much of our self-esteem is tied to how we look and present ourselves, and while you don’t want to invest all of your self-worth in the way you look, there’s nothing wrong learning to love your appearance. Part of healing really is external.
Our bodies deteriorate over time. Like it or not, the brain is part of the body. There’s no stopping this process dead in its tracks, but you can slow the degeneration process by exercising. People who regularly move their bodies show a reduced rate of developing brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, as well as better memory and a higher capacity for learning. Working out is brain food! An optimal functioning brain is essential for emotional regulation.
The more energy you use, the more your body will make. As your body realizes you’re not giving up on exercising, it will adapt by making you more energetic. Not only is this a blessing from a practical perspective of efficiency and productivity, but it can also combat depression symptoms like sluggishness and lethargy. We can easily get tricked by thoughts that we don’t’ have the time or energy to do more, when in actuality, in most cases, the more we do the more energy we have.
Your brain is your body. Your body is your brain. They’re engaged in an interminable partnership, and we all have a role to play in making that partnership work. You don’t have to train like a professional athlete – even walking, stretching, or working in the yard will yield great results. What are you waiting for? Get moving!