In theory, we all know the things we are meant to do to keep ourselves fit and physically healthy, and with so much advice on these topics, it can be difficult knowing which advice to follow. Eating nutritious foods, drinking plenty of water, getting adequate sleep and participating in regular exercise are the general themes, alongside preventative and responsive health care from a physician for illness and injury. Yet often the mental health components of our total well-being are overlooked.
Well-being is more than just fitness and body wellness. It also encompasses our thoughts, feelings, moods and abilities to cope with the different situations that life throws at us. It even accounts for our social wellness and financial wellness. The acceptance that all these factors are linked, is finally starting to take hold at a clinical level, yet services for mental health and physical health are still largely separate. So, what about at a personal level? How can you attend to your own health and well-being and the well-being of those around you?
The link between physical and mental well-being
You cannot have total health and well-being without both the physical and mental components. At certain times in our lives we may struggle with one or both of these elements. Many people live with prolonged or chronic illness, disability or other physical ailments that can deeply impact their mental well-being. Conversely, for those struggling with mental health problems, it can be difficult to maintain the exercise, diet, sleep routine and other physical factors that are needed for a healthy lifestyle. Medications and mental health treatments can also have physical impacts for some people. This doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable, but it does mean the balancing act of physical and mental well-being may be harder.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: “…the 2017–18 National Health Survey (ABS 2018) estimated that there was a strong overlap between physical health and mental health problems. People who reported having a mental illness were much more likely to report having a chronic medical condition, and vice versa.”
The negative implications of one form of ill health on the other may be somewhat obvious, but what about the positive and protective impacts? There are simple things we can do in the workplace, home, school or out in the community, to support improved mental well-being through physical health.
Getting physical for our minds and bodies
Over 1 in 2 Australian adults is not sufficiently active (AIHW, 2017). This is largely due to sedentary lifestyles, increased dependence on devices and screens, and competing demands on time. Australian guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise each day which can be as simple as getting your body moving or even combining several shorter sessions throughout the day to reach the daily target. Workplace exercise programs, team or individual sports, gym or pool memberships, at-home workouts, or simply going for a regular walk are all ways to get in the fitness your body needs. Even incidental exercise like dancing or gardening that gets the heart rate up and body moving can help. There is something to suit every schedule, ability and lifestyle. Exercise can also pack some added bonuses for our well-being, such as time in nature, fresh air and social interaction.
Benefits of exercise on mental health:
- Chemicals: Gets endorphins, serotonin and other positive chemicals pumping, which can lift mood both during and beyond the exercise period.
- Brain function: Improves brain function by increasing the size of the hippocampus and increasing nerve connections in the brain for better mind function.
- Body function: Improves physical strength, flexibility, endurance and other bodily attributes and functions – in short, when you feel good physically, you are more likely to feel good mentally.
- Moods: Has proven positive impacts for many people who experience stress, depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns. Exercise is often incorporated into mental illness treatment and recovery.
- Positive distraction: When you are exercising, you can try mindfully switching off from the things that might be causing you worry, distress or stress. Exercise can be a form of self-care.
- Body image and self-esteem: As it can help manage weight, improve strength and enhance fitness ability it can help people to feel more comfortable and happier in their own skin and body.
- Sleep outcomes: Contributes to positive sleep hygiene – energy out at the right times of day can improve the energy renewal experienced during sleep cycles, which in turn can improve moods.
- Preventative health: Exercise is a factor that can reduce the likelihood or severity of many illnesses and physical health problems. This can lead to a longer, happier life, with less pain, stress or other symptoms from poor health.
Other healthy protective factors for mental well-being
While it can be difficult to find the time, motivation or resources to fulfil all our well-being needs, there are little things that almost all of us can do to improve the link between our physical and mental health.
- Eating healthy: Poor nutrition, deficiencies caused by diets lacking in the right elements, disordered eating, and poor diets that lead to body image issues or physical ill health, can all impact mental well-being. Australian dietary guidelines suggest incorporating more fruit and vegetables, and reducing foods high in bad fats, sugars and salts. It’s also important to get good energy and hydration. Eating healthy doesn’t mean dieting – it simply means eating good nutritious foods that fuel your body, while being mindful of which foods or quantities might cause problems.
- Getting sleep: According to the Sleep Health Foundation, over 35% of Australian adults have sleep problems such as: insomnia, restless sleeping, disordered sleep routines or sleep apnoea. Stress or mental health problems can impact sleep and vice versa. Creating positive sleep hygiene habits (inclusive of good sleep environments, healthy sleep routines, relaxation and understanding sleep needs and cues) is important. When we are well rested, we are better able to take on both physical and mental tasks.
- Avoiding Substance misuse: Around 1 in 20 Australians has a substance use or addiction problem (Australian Health Direct, 2019), while many people exceed safe alcohol consumption guidelines – as high as 41% for some age groups (AIHW, 2020). People experiencing a mental health problem are more likely to misuse substances. Maintaining a controlled approach to consumption of alcohol and other substances is important for well-being, as is seeking help for problem drinking, drug taking or smoking.
- Seeing a doctor: Seeing a physician for regular health check ups can help to identify issues that could impact both physical and mental health. Finding a general practitioner who is thorough, and able to support you with both your physical and mental health concerns, can improve access to care for both body and mind.
These protective factors are applicable to most people, whether experiencing mental health problems or not. Depending on physicality, lifestyle, personality, resources and abilities the mix of healthy choices a person makes may differ slightly. Always make choices about exercise, diet and sleep that are right for you and your circumstances.
Remember, it’s important to always practice safety when embarking on a new health regime. Consider contacting a local medical physician, a fitness instructor and/or dietitian depending on the need.
If the physical or mental health concern you or someone you are supporting becomes too big, it’s time to seek help.
- If life is in danger call 000
- If physical symptoms are a concern contact a health care professional, such as a GP
- For advice about drug and alcohol abuse contact the Alcohol and Drug Foundation – 1300 85 85 84
- For mental health crises that are beyond the scope of this article or your care contact:
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
Continue your learning
Understanding how to talk about mental health is an important skill. Many people feel uncomfortable and unprepared and this can mean the conversation never starts at all. Mental Health First Aid courses teach you how to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health problems or a crisis such as thoughts of suicide. You’ll gain the confidence to give the most effective support you can and when and how to access professional help.
A conversation could change a life and learning the right skills can make the difference.
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