Body and Mind IntertwinedThe Department of Health and Human Services, in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), launched a nationwide health promotion and disease prevention initiative called Healthy People 2010. One of the focus areas from this initiative is to increase the amount of physical activity in the largely sedentary population, in hopes of supporting physical health and reducing the staggering number of preventable deaths. For example, in the year 2000, of 2,391,399 deaths, 1,159,000 (48%) were from preventable causes. Furthermore an estimated 400,000 of those deaths were due to poor diet and physical inactivity. Insufficient physical activity also accounts for $75 billion dollars in healthcare costs, according to the World Health Organization.
The CDC currently recommends that every adult should accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. If you are thinking to yourself that you are not coming anywhere near meeting these guidelines, you are not alone: in 2005, almost 40% of surveyed adults over age 18 reported that they were not involved in any type of leisure time physical activity, and only 30% of those who were active reported that they met the physical activity guidelines.
Centuries ago, Descartes (both philosopher and scientist) argued that mind and body were separate entities, entirely independent of each other in function and condition, intersecting at just one point – the pineal gland. We now know, through burgeoning fields such as neurobiology and psychoneuroimmunology, that mind are body are intricately intertwined and are, in many ways, one and the same. George Engel’s biopsychosocial model explains how psychological, social, and biological factors all impact human functioning. The term “wellness,” popular in culture today, also refers to a holistic conception of well-being that is inclusive of all aspects of a person’s life. Well-being is more than just a state of mind – it is a state of being.
How are Physical Activity and the Good Life Related?
So, from a positive psychology perspective, what role does physical activity play in cultivating the good life and in human flourishing? What good is physical activity?Some of the answers are well-known, well-researched, and intuitive. On the physical level, exercise builds and maintains bone health, helps keep weight in control, builds lean muscle and reduces the fat ratio, reduces blood pressure, improves the efficiency with which your body processes glucose, and decreases the risk of many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer, to name a few. It also helps us maintain our aesthetic goals of looking younger and leaner, or fitting into an itsy bitsy, teenie weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini (or Speedo) in time for the summer beach season.
A recent review article by Scully and colleagues in the British Journal of Sports Medicine also presented support for positive relationships between physical activity and psychological well-being.
- Battle the Blues: Exercise can help aid in the recovery from depression (particularly with clinical populations), but more importantly, may help individuals become more resilient to depression. Aerobic forms of exercise, such as jogging or cycling, appear to be more effective in this role.
- Ward off Worries: Exercise, sufficient as short bursts of physical activity, can have a positive impact on anxiety as well. Effects can be magnified if you follow a regiment continuously for several months.
- Safeguard from Stress: Regular physical activity can also serve as a preventive role in buffering you from the stresses of daily living. For this purpose, aerobic activity is best in enhancing stress responsivity and adaptability.
- Modify your Mood: In many studies, exercise has shown to enhance and elevate mood, although it is unclear whether this is an effect caused by hormonal or biochemical changes. For this effect, a wide variety of aerobic and anaerobic exercises can help.
- Step Up your Self Confidence: Physical activity provides a rich playground to experience mastery and skill building, the development of which can lead to increased perceived and experienced competence. Improvements in body shape and condition can also promote positive self-image. Find challenging and engaging activities, and celebrate your accomplishments!
Other emerging research in the field supports that there is a positive link between physical activity and brain health, cognition, and memory. Brain imaging studies have shown that exercise can help keep the brain young by stimulating the expression of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which encourages neurons in the brain to forge new connections with other neurons, and strengthen existing connections, resulting in a more capable and efficient structure with a denser network of neurons.
Dream about and aspire to be you at your best, but don’t forget to be cognizant about your health and physical fitness. After all, what good would it be to set goals, land your dream job, raise wonderful kids, and find happiness and meaning if you aren’t around long to enjoy it? As is often the case, living a healthier and more active lifestyle is a choice and decision, and takes hard work and dedication. The reward? Your BEST possible self, from head to toe.
Anderson, R. N. Deaths: Leading Causes for 2000. NVSR 50(16). Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics.
Mokdad, AH, et.al. Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000. JAMA 291(10): 1238-1245. March 10, 2004.
Scully, D., Kremer, J., Meade, M.M., Graham, & Dudgeon (1998). Physical exercise and psychological well-being: A critical review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 32: 111-120.
World Health Organization: Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health (The Nation’s Health – APHA, March 2004).