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).
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Really like this article. I talk to a lot of people about neck-down interventions (i.e., doing physical activities to influence your mental state), and I think you’re right on with the research and your recommendations at the end of the article.
What is the research on warding off worries? And how much exercise and of what kind has an effect on decreasing worries? Thanks,
The research I have read on the relationship between exercise and anxiety found that bouts of aerobic exercise (in short bout as brief as 5 minutes) resulted in lowered state anxiety and increase tranquility post-exercise.
Another study compared jogging as exercise to other more traditional methods of anxiety regulation, such as stress inoculation and progressive relaxation, and found that jogging was equally as effective as the traditional methods in reducing state anxiety when compared to a control group.
I can send you articles if you like – let me know. 🙂
Very interesting, thank you.
Several years ago, before I became a family man, I walked every night after work. Where I walked had a combination of flat and hilly paths. I was able to reduce the time taken from 60 to 42 minutes as I became fitter. I was going through a very rough patch in my life and I found the thinking time without work or home distractions during the walk was invaluable. I found the key to getting the best mental benefit was making sure that my thoughts dwelled on what was going right in my life, instead of dwelling on what was going wrong.
It was also during this time that I discovered “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman, which has lead me into a layperson’s interest in Positive Psychology for the past eight years.
It would be interesting to see if the beneficial effects of regular exercise/physical activity are dependant on the partcipant’s state of mind.
Thank you for a very interesting post.
Kathryn & Gloria,
When I was a younger, maybe twelve or so I used to become very sullen and moody (aka a normal kid). We used to live in a working class development and my mother would always say, “Go outside and get the stink blown off you”. Remembering that phrase tickles me so much. It wasn’t the smell of me that needed improvement, which with all the hormones I’m sure there was some foulness, but the simple act of getting up and strolling around the development would soon boost my mood. Moms sometimes know best.
I still need to get the Stink Blown Off Me. I think more adults should De-Stink once in while when they are stressed out. Don’t you think so?
My aunt used to say “Go play on the railroad tracks,” in similar circumstances. That must have been code for “go get the stink blown off you.” We all lived to grow up, so we must have understood it.
Go play on the railroad tracks! That’s a keeper.
I definitely think we, as adults, forget to de-stink too often. I know in my own life, physical activity takes a back seat when things get busy, or when I have other priorities to attend to. When I started teaching skating again, I would walk into the rink after a long day of work feeling stressed and cranky. After spending an hour on the ice and another hour off the ice with my kids, I always left feeling energized and elevated.
I’m so happy to see that workplaces are adopting midday physical activity programs for their employees, providing them with more opportunities to get active despite a busy schedule.
We can all use a little more De-Stinking!
Have a great week.
Suggest you look at the research on vagal tone and mood.
Interval exercise maximises vagal tone and from my experience maximises mood
I’m researching positive psychology as it relates to physical activity at the moment and will be for the next 3 years as I conduct my doctorate training. I’m working in a forensic mental health unit and there seems to be scant research in this particular area regarding these subjects and their effects. This is an area where, traditionally, a lot of focus has been placed upon the ill-effects of patients rather than including the development of their positive attributes simultaneously. This is a balance I hope to address in my research.
I loved your article and promote the benefits of exercise and p.a holistically where I work. I’m hoping to be able to contribute to both our patients and staff in respect of the work I do, which is to promote and provide activity opportunities. Now that I’ve found it, I’m sure I’ll be using your group as a valuable reference in the future.
All the best
I have heard from many people that physical activity and exercise can really lower anxiety levels and just make you feel better over all. Except, for me just thinking about exercise makes me anxious. I really hate the thought of going to the gym or going for a run and I just dont know what to do to motivate myself. Any suggestions?