Just as physical fitness helps our bodies to stay strong, mental fitness helps us to achieve and sustain a state of good mental health. When we are mentally healthy, we enjoy our life and environment, and the people in it. We can be creative, learn, try new things, and take risks. We are better able to cope with difficult times in our personal and professional lives. We feel the sadness and anger that can come with the death of a loved one, a job loss or relationship problems and other difficult events, but in time, we are able to get on with and enjoy our lives once again.
Nurturing our mental health can also help us combat or prevent the mental health problems that are sometimes associated with a chronic physical illness. In some cases, it can prevent the onset or relapse of a physical or mental illness. Managing stress well, for instance, can have a positive impact on heart disease.
Chances are, you are already taking steps to sustain your mental health, as well as your physical health – you just might not realize it.
Three important ways to improve your mental fitness are to get physical, eat right, and take control of stress.
We’ve known for a long time about the benefits of exercise as a proactive way to enhance our physical condition and combat disease; now, exercise is recognized as an essential element in building and maintaining mental fitness.
So, if you already do exercise of some kind, give yourself two pats on the back – you’re improving your physical and mental fitness.
Exercise has many psychological benefits. For example:
- Physical activity is increasingly becoming part of the prescription for the treatment of depression and anxiety. Exercise alone is not a cure, but it does have a positive impact.
- Research has found that regular physical activity appears as effective as psychotherapy for treating mild to moderate depression. Therapists also report that patients who exercise regularly simply feel better and are less likely to overeat or abuse alcohol and drugs.
- Exercise can reduce anxiety. Many studies have come to this conclusion. People who exercise report feeling less stressed or nervous. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise (exercise which requires oxygen, such as a step class, swimming, walking) can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
- Physical exercise helps to counteract the withdrawal, inactivity and feelings of hopelessness that characterize depression. Studies show that both aerobic and anaerobic exercise (exercise which does not require oxygen, such as weightlifting) have anti-depressive effects.
- Moods such as tension, fatigue, anger and vigor are all positively affected by exercise.
- Exercising can improve the way you perceive your physical condition, athletic abilities and body image. Enhanced self-esteem is another benefit.
- Last, but not least, exercise brings you into contact with other people in a non-clinical, positive environment. For the length of your walk or workout or aqua-fit class, you engage with people who share your interest in that activity.
Feel the Rush
We may not realize what caused it, but most of us have felt it. Whether we’re engaged in a leisurely swim or an adrenaline-charged rock climb, there is that moment when suddenly pain or discomfort drops away and we are filled with a sense of euphoria.
We have endorphins to thank for these moments of bliss. Endorphins are chemicals produced in the brain, which bind to neuro-receptors to give relief from pain.
Discovered in 1975, the role of endorphins is still being studied. They are believed to: relieve pain; enhance the immune system; reduce stress; and delay the aging process. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, sending these depression-fighting, contentment-building chemicals throughout the body. No wonder we feel good after a workout or brisk walk!
Endorphin release varies from person to person; some people will feel an endorphin rush, or second wind, after jogging for 10 minutes. Others will jog for half an hour before their second wind kicks in.
You don’t have to exercise vigorously to stimulate endorphin release: meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy, even eating spicy food or breathing deeply – these all cause your body to produce endorphins naturally.
So enjoy some moderate exercise and feel the endorphin rush!
Here’s some food for thought – Making the right nutritional choices can affect more than the fit of our clothes; it can have an impact on our mental health.
A new study by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation suggests that poor diet has played a role in the significant increase in mental health problems over the past 50 years.
The trend away from eating less fresh produce and consuming more saturated fats and sugars, including substances like pesticides, additives and trans-fats, can prevent the brain from functioning properly, says the Feeding Minds study. It makes a persuasive link between changing food fads and increases in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.
The message is not a new one, but it is perhaps the most forceful argument yet for paying more attention to the nutrition-mental health connection. What we put on our plates becomes the raw material for our brains to manufacture hormones and neurotransmitters – chemical substances that control our sleep, mood and behaviour. If we shortchange the brain, we also shortchange our intellectual and emotional potential.
Our diet also supplies the vitamins which our bodies cannot create, and which we need to help speed up the chemical processes that we need for survival and brain function. Vitamin deficiencies sometimes manifest themselves as depression and can cause mood swings, anxiety and agitation, as well as a host of physical problems.
Mental health professionals point out that good eating habits are vital for people wanting to optimize the effectiveness of and cope with possible side effects of medications used to treat mental illnesses.
Clearly, selecting which foods to eat has consequences beyond immediate taste bud satisfaction. To optimize our brain function, we need to eat a balanced diet of:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, nuts, seeds and eggs
- Whole grains
Every night you go to sleep you automatically start to determine how you will feel the next day, as sleep is a determinant of good health. When you are sleeping your body works to regenerate and sustain healthy brain function and not only regulates and affect your physical health but can protect or harm your mental health as well.
Receiving quality amounts of sleep is vital to shaping the way you function, converse with both yourself and others, react, learn, and how you think as a whole. It is an important component to an overall healthy lifestyle and will aid in recovering the body and mind from stressful days, so you can wake up feeling refreshed to take on a new day.
Not receiving the appropriate amount of sleep can increase your likelihood of developing negative mental health. When you are sleep deprived you are more likely to have trouble making decisions, adjusting emotions and feelings, controlling reactions, coping with change and countless other areas. Insufficient amounts of sleep on a regular basis have been directly linked to suicidal thoughts and behaviours, depression and risk-taking behaviour.
So next time you go to sleep make sure you have given yourself lots of time for rest so your body and mind can rejuvenate itself for tomorrow.