Disclaimer: This is not by any means intended to be professional advice about health and wellbeing. This is simply a collection of insights drawn from research conducted by credible institutions.
The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” A clear line is often drawn between physical and mental health, evident with schools often titling health classes as “Physical Education.” While these two sectors of our health are unique, exploring the interconnectedness of physical and mental health provides insight into how we can create a domino effect to improve our own well-being.
Physical Health’s Impact on Mental Health
In a study investigating the effect of exercise on depression, exercise radically improved depressive symptoms, even more so than medication. The group of participants was split up to receive 3 treatments: medication only, medication and exercise, and exercise only. In a follow-up six months following the treatment, 38% of those who received medication only relapsed, and only 9% of those who exercised regularly relapsed. Evidence suggests that exercise isn’t just an effective, easily implemented, and a long-lasting component of well-being, but one that seems to beat out carefully developed medications. (Achor, 2011)
If you think you’re not “fit” or athletic, don’t be discouraged. There is no strict definition to what is valid exercise; you are in control of creating a routine that fits your schedule, interests, and fitness – exercise is what you make of it. Whether you prefer a morning run, weight-lifting, swimming, walking your dog, hiking, 10- minutes of relaxing yoga alongside guided meditations, or dancing in your room to recreate the “You Belong with Me” music video hairbrush scene (a personal favorite for sure), you have the ability to define your pursuit of exercise. Do what feels good to you.
Reverse that: Mental Health’s Impact on Physical Health
It may be unsurprising that one’s mental health directly impacts our physical health. Mental health issues often manifest in unhealthy behaviors such as inconsistent sleep schedules, disrupted appetites, and lack of exercise. However, scientific insight has uncovered mental health is linked to physical health through not only behavior changes, but with tangible, biological changes.
- Stress and depression temporarily weakens the immune system
Psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., and immunologist Ronald Glaser, Ph.D., pioneered research suggesting elevated stress levels and depression directly weaken the immune system. Natural killer cells are specialized cells that fight tumors and viral infections. While investigating medical students during a three-day exam period in 1980, Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser noted decreased numbers of natural killer cells. In a 2002 study with Lyanne McGuire, PhD alongside Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser, chronic mild depression was discovered to be linked with weak responses to mitogens by lymphocyte T-cells, which are involved the response mechanism to viruses and bacteria. (American Psychological Association, 2006)
- Mental Illness is linked with the prevalence of chronic physical conditions
According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Canadians with symptoms of depression experience three times as many chronic, physical health conditions as the population average. Whether the association is caused by behavioral or physical changes is ambiguous. (CMHA Ontario, 2008)
Some of these findings are disheartening on the surface, but be wary of misinterpreting this information to believe one is destined for declining health. Instead, these insights give us hope; because the sectors that compose our overall wellbeing are so closely related, improving one aspect of your wellbeing can subsequently improve other aspects of our health as well, thereby creating a domino effect in recovery. Improving your mental health can improve your physical health and improving your physical health could also improve your mental health. The mind-body interaction is a beautifully complex relationship, whose exploration is empowering us to predict and address health.
Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: the Seven Principles That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Virgin Books, 2011.
“Frequently Asked Questions.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/about/who-we-are/frequently-asked-questions.
“The Relationship between Mental Health, Mental Illness and Chronic Physical Conditions.” CMHA Ontario, 2008, ontario.cmha.ca/documents/the-relationship-between-mental-health-mental-illness-and-chronic-physical-conditions/.
“Stress Weakens the Immune System.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 23 Feb. 2006, www.apa.org/research/action/immune.