Every year, Mental Health Awareness Month offers the chance to remind ourselves of the importance of mental health. In fact, according to the WHO, health is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. While previously thought of as separate elements of health, it is becoming clear that physical health and mental health are more closely linked than we realized.
We know that regular exercise improves cardiovascular health, strengthens your bones and muscles, and increases your metabolic health. But it also has a substantial impact on your mental health and well-being. Mounting evidence is showing that good physical health can boost your mood, decrease stress levels, and even enhance cognitive performance.
What is mental health?
Mental health is an essential component of our overall health. It affects how we feel, think, and act, and it can also affect our ability to make choices, handle stress, and interact with others. Examples of the most common mental disorders include depression, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder.
There are likely numerous factors that contribute to our mental well-being. These include biological factors (such as genetics), psychological factors (such as trauma or abuse), and environmental factors (such as financial hardship or substance abuse). Poor mental health is also often associated with stressful work conditions, sexual violence, unhealthy lifestyles, or poor physical health, among others. Examples of how to create an environment that promotes mental health include:
Early childhood education, for example, promotes healthy lifestyle habits
Support programs for children who may be at risk of abuse
Community development programs
Stress prevention programs or other mental health interventions at work
Having poor mental health can also negatively affect your physical health, leading to an increased risk of some conditions.
What is social health?
Humans are social creatures; we crave deep connections with friends, family, or other members of our community. As it turns out, having good social health actually improves our physical health too.
So how do you define social health? Social health describes our ability to interact and form meaningful relationships with others, including how we can adapt in social situations. Sociologists have long been interested in the link between social relationships and health outcomes – now, many studies have shown that positive social health can have short- and long-term health benefits. A common feature of some of the longest-living cultures in the world is that they value a deep sense of community, which is key to positive social health. Some simple things we can do to improve our social well-being include:
Balance your work, social and personal time
Develop and maintain positive relationships with friends, intimate partners, family members, or colleagues
Engage with others in the community
So, how does physical health affect your mental and social health?
You have probably noticed if you’ve gone for a run, spin class, or yoga session after a stressful day, you usually feel better afterward. This link between exercise and mental health is actually pretty strong. The “exercise effect”, according to members of the American Psychological Association, describes how people who exercise regularly tend to feel more energized throughout the day, are able to stay more alert, and are able to sleep better at night. In contrast, poor physical health can negatively affect your mood and make it difficult to stay motivated or want to interact with others.
This can be attributed to the profound impacts that physical activity has on the brain. It can reduce inflammation, promote cell growth in the hippocampus (a part of the brain involved in learning and memory), and promote the growth of neurons (the building blocks of the brain). Exercise also causes a natural reduction in stress hormones like adrenaline and increases the release of endorphins – a type of neurotransmitter that helps relieve pain and stress. It also increases other types of neurotransmitters that are associated with happiness or positive well-being, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
In addition to the short-term mood boost, the impact exercise has on mental health has long-term benefits, including the ability to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
Depression: Research now shows that exercise can help alleviate depression. One study found that running for 15 minutes or doing a moderately vigorous activity (like walking) for an hour a day is enough to reduce the risk of depression. Another study even showed that exercise was generally comparable to antidepressants for the treatment of patients with major depressive disorder.
Anxiety: Researchers showed that when anxiety-prone volunteers took part in a two-week exercise program, they experienced significant improvements in anxiety compared to those who didn’t exercise. This is likely because exercise produces many of the same physical reactions as the fight-or-flight response, so by exercising regularly, they were helping to train the nervous system to better respond to those fight-or-flight sensations.
Stress: During a stressful period, you may remember experiencing notable changes in your body, including tense muscles (particularly in your face, neck, and shoulders), headaches, elevated pulse, or the feeling of a tight or heavy chest. In addition to releasing endorphins (those natural painkillers), physical activity can help relax muscles in the body and improve alertness and concentration. So, while many things that cause us stress may be impossible to eliminate, you can start to manage your stress through regular exercise.
Social determinants of health
Our physical, mental, and social health are influenced by a number of factors. This has been summarized in the CDC 2021 Social Determinants of Health (Figure 1), which describes the conditions in the environments we are born, live, learn, work, age, and worship that affect our health and well-being. These can be broken down into 5 categories:
a. Economic Stability
b. Education Access and Quality
c. Health Care Access and Quality
d. Neighborhood and Built Environment
e. Social and Community Context
All of these factors can have a major impact on your health and well-being. For example, unsafe housing can contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases from heavy pollution and communicable diseases can be spread from unsanitary living conditions (see the social determinants of health screening tool for more examples). By working together to improve these conditions, we can start to improve the physical, social, and mental health in America.
Move to improve your overall health
Researchers are still trying to figure out which types of exercise are best and how much is necessary to improve mental health. It will be important for healthcare professionals from different specialties, such as psychologists and sports medicine doctors, to communicate in order to integrate exercise into current treatment plans for mental health. The good thing is, there are some simple things you can do to promote your physical, mental, and social health straight away. You could go for a walk with loved ones, join a local team sport, or catch up with friends for a coffee before going to a yoga or fitness class together. Research suggests that both the quality and quantity of social relationships can affect our mental and physical health, so don’t be shy!