Body and mind health have been inextricably linked for centuries. Until the 1800s, most doctors believed emotions cause disease and would prescribe visits to spas and other relaxing places to encourage patients to get better. Now, doctors acknowledge that your mind affects your physical health.
The mind-body connection between physical health and depression seems to flow both ways: People with chronic physical ailments have a greater tendency toward depression, and depression seems to worsen many physical illnesses. Depression is linked with coronary heart disease, stroke, colorectal cancer, back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and type 2 diabetes.
Physical health affects mental health
Recently, research has shown that the mind-body connection also runs the other way: Physical health can affect mental function and mental health. One study indicated that people struggling with physical health problems, such as heart disease, withdraw from social interaction and social situations. Social isolation frequently leads to mental health problems, particularly among the older population.
The connection between body and mind seems to be strongest among seniors.
- Physical health and moderate exercise reduce anxiety.
- Physical fitness correlates with the size of the hippocampus. The shrinking of the hippocampus, which occurs with age, affects cognitive functioning, such as spatial memory and retention.
- More active and physically fit people tend to be happier.
- People in poor shape tend to have less self-confidence.
- High blood pressure, lack of exercise, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
- Body postures and facial expressions may affect how you think and behave. For example, hand-washing can actually have a psychologically cleansing effect.
- Changes in physical posture, such as adopting “power poses,” resulted in an increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol.
- Tensing muscles increases self-control.
Physical activity strengthens mind and body.
Bridgette Argus, wellness nurse at The Esquiline, says, “We all know that physical activity is very important for everyone, but it is necessary for seniors. Seniors, in particular, are subject not only to declining physical health and mobility, but also to problems with cognitive abilities, mental health challenges and social isolation. Fortunately, research shows that participating in recreational activities improves both physical and mental health, as well as contributes to social wellbeing.”
Physical wellness can actually stave off many chronic illnesses associated with aging, maintains a publication by the National Social Science Association. It specifically points out that a major disadvantage of aging in place is “limited routine physical tasks and limited social connections.”
Bridgette advocates physical activity to benefit mind and body: “Staying active in the retirement years will keep you physically fit, mentally sharp and socially engaged. Overall, those who take part in recreational activities are more satisfied with their lives compared to those who don’t.”
She points out that The Esquiline encourages physical fitness with exercise classes and physical activities, socialization with a variety of programs and group activities, learning opportunities with classes, and spiritual wellness with religious services.
How can you use the mind-body connection to maintain your mental and physical health?
- Ask your doctor. Frequently, physicians have lists of exercises specifically for people who have arthritis or high blood pressure or who are older. Your doctor can also tell which sorts of activities are best for you specifically. And remember to start slow.
- Work out aerobically on a regular basis. The Centers for Disease Control recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. However, it backed off from a recommendation of 5 30-minute sessions per week because of research that indicates that shorter sessions are as effective. For example, you can take two 15-minute walks a day instead of one 30-minute walk.
- Include strength training in your fitness routine. The CDC recommends two sessions per week of muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups.
- Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates are excellent fitness activities using slow, controlled movements that benefit your mind and body.
- Meditation reduces stress, improves concentration, increases self-awareness, slows aging (through changes in brain physiology), and benefits cardiovascular and immune system health.
- Live mindfully. Think about everything you eat and everything you do. Make informed choices.
- Walk outside in nature. Nature has stress-relieving and meditative influences.
- Smile and laugh. Research has shown that your physical expressions and postures affect your attitude.
“Healthy, active living doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym every day, but just doing simple activities like walking, card games, crafts, etc., is enough to engage the mind and body on a regular basis and to interact with others as you do so. For optimal health, activities for seniors should foster the mind, body, and spirit connection,” Bridgette advises.