I’ve said this before and I’ll probably say it again, the human body is an unbelievably extraordinary machine, a complex instrument of interconnected systems and parts all operating as a cohesive whole, capable of feats of incredible strength and agility, art and emotion, and genius and innovation. Too often we find ourselves focusing on just one aspect of the self: the physical, the cognitive, or the psychological. However, especially in times of crisis and stress, the human body functions best when all aspects are being nurtured, and this is because they are all dependent upon one another.
Let’s start with how physical health impacts mental and psychological health. For the most part, having a healthy body contributes to having a healthy brain. The more efficiently your cardiovascular system is functioning, the more oxygen-rich blood it can deliver to your brain, stimulating both brain cell growth and increased synaptic function. The combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise improves both learning and memory, and it can help to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia. In addition, just fifteen to twenty minutes of any activity that causes increased respiration, such as a brisk walk or vinyasa yoga, can improve cognitive performance on tests. Then of course, when it comes to psychological health, Elle Woods in Legally Blonde simplified it best when she stated, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” Movie quotes aside, physical health contributes to lower risks of depression and anxiety, and regular exercise can play a very important role in reducing stress. Not only does exercise produce those cheery endorphins, but it also increases your sensitivity to serotonin, which not only provides a biochemical reduction in depression symptoms, but it also improves the quality of your sleep. In essence, if you want to stay happy and mentally sharp, eat right and stay active.
Now let’s take a look at the impacts of cognitive health. Memory loss, lack of cognitive focus, and a decline in visuospacial awareness all have negative impacts on both physical and psychological health. Think about how likely you are to have an accident if you are not paying attention to your surroundings, or how even the miniscule amount of cognitive fog that occurs from sleep deprivation can result in a lack of physical coordination. Conversely, if you’ve ever taken a dance class or spent time learning to play an instrument or other intricate physical task, you’ve likely experienced that lightbulb moment that occurs when the brain makes all of the necessary connections that allow the body to perform the activity that is being taught. That level of cognitive awareness is essential for the physical body to learn new movement patterns, and if that falls into decline, the effects are like sleepwalking. In addition, impaired memory and focus have been linked to anxiety, depression, and aggression, so the idea is to nurture your brain, whether it be through learning new skills or doing crossword puzzles, for your physical and psychological wellbeing.
Finally, let’s address psychological health. The impact of anxiety, depression, stress, and other psychological factors on your physical and mental health should never be underestimated. Emotions can both fuel and sap your physical body. Sure, a hearty dose of anger can be channeled into an intense workout, but that same anger can sometimes cause a more rapid onset of fatigue. In addition, stress has been shown to impair your ability to willingly engage in any kind of physical activity. If you’ve ever found yourself sitting in front of the television eating your favorite snack instead of doing something productive because you’ve had a stressful day, week, month, or year, don’t panic, and don’t feel guilty. In fact, there are copious amounts of scientific research to show that inactivity and eating comfort food are perfectly normal reactions to stress. Chronic stress, depression, and anxiety have also been proven to affect your hormone levels, resulting in insomnia, weight fluctuations, and impaired cognitive function. In fact, cognitive function and anxiety impact each other in sort of a feedback loop. Chronic anxiety results in reduced cognitive function which then fuels anxiety. Conversely, the practice of stress management improves memory and cognition, and a reduction in stress has an enormous effect on cardiovascular health, weight management, and blood sugar levels.
So, knowing all of this, how do we get our entire body functioning optimally? Well, as they said at the end of every GI Joe episode, “Knowing is half the battle.” Recognizing that health and wellness are dependent upon all of these aspects working upon each other is the first step toward taking action. Now you may have noticed my seemingly random use of quotes in this blog, but here’s how they all come together. “Knowing,” like GI Joe, on a cognitive level will help you to make choices that will enable you, like Elle, to recognize the mental and emotional benefits of “Exercise,” or simply engaging in healthy physical behaviors. In addition, acknowledging, like Yoda, that we are “Luminous beings,” reminds us to take the time to take note of the effects of our psychological health on our physical bodies and mental function, while also taking action to nurture our luminous selves through physical and mental activity. When all three aspects of ourselves are in harmony, then we are on the path toward true wellness and the ability to stay Always in Motion.