The Relationship between Mental and Physical Health

By Caterina Meli

I had an opportunity to speak to two incredible individuals in the fitness and health industry–Rachel Eden, a McMaster Alumni who graduated in Health and Aging with a Mental Health and Addictions specialization, and Giuliano Meli, a specialist in Sports Nutrition and a graduate of the Fitness Health and Promotion at Niagara College. Their personal experiences and knowledge on the subject paved the way for great insights on how physical health can improve mental health and tips to have a positive relationship with your body.

What does physical health mean to you?

Giuliano: Physical health is how your body is doing on a daily basis. It is a current thing because the way you were feeling yesterday is different than today. Seeing how your body feels, as well as testing, is how someone can gage where their physical health is at the current moment.

Rachel: Physical health is our current stance on how your body is feeling. Seeing how your body works to its maximum potential; that includes both your body and your brain, which is how mental health ties in.

What does mental health mean to you?

Rachel: Mental health to me exists on a scale and is always changing. It is not about being happy all the time, but getting in tune with your emotions and being able to understand yourself. If you are experiencing negative mental health, it is important to acknowledge and deal with it in a healthy way.

Giuliano: Everything always starts in the mind and goes externally onto your actions. Mental health is something that everyone experiences–you’ll always have highs and lows and you always want an equilibrium, which means finding a balance, and a routine, and ultimately controlling your mind and becoming more present in society.

Why could someone suffering from mental health concerns benefit from physical activity?

Giuliano: It’s scientifically proven that when you exercise, it releases endorphins. It also improves self-efficacy; as you make small improvements, you work towards a goal and that affects how you view yourself. Self-efficacy is how confident you are in your ability to achieve something, and working on this is important. Staying true to goals will make you realize, “If I can set a goal and achieve it, I can do it in all aspects of my life.”

Rachel: For me, it's 1. endorphins–the release of endorphins is proven to make you feel better after exercise–and 2, taking care of yourself. When you exercise you better yourself, which makes your body feel better, and your mental state shifts towards better. Exercise is self-care because it puts you on a schedule and engages you in something you enjoy doing which benefits your overall health.

What lifestyle choices are imperative to maintain positive consistency for both mental and physical health?

Rachel: To me, it is a balance: diet, sleeping, socialization, mental stimulation, and physical exercise. The food you put into your body is important; gut health has a lot to do with mental health, and the food you eat affects your mental state. Having good mental health is being able to see when you're doing too much or too little of something.; If you're eating well, but youre doing it to the extreme, it’s not going to be good;, sleeping too much is not good, but sleeping too little is bad;, and exercising too much or too little can be harmful. Understanding your body and when you need more, or less of something. It is okay to say, “Maybe I need a week to relax,” because listening to your body and what it needs is important.

Giuliano: To me, lifestyle choices can have an effect by putting yourself in a specific state of mind–when you make certain lifestyle choices, you put yourself into different perspectives. They [lifestyle choices] are the steering wheel to your life; they are important for getting out of a bad state, or getting into a good one. Focus on consistency and enjoyment. Do something you truly enjoy, and you will get it done– if you enjoy taking walks outside, boxing, or working out, that affects your consistency. If you’re doing something you don’t enjoy, you won't be consistent with it.

In your educated opinion, what are some good resources and resolutions to avoid negative body image health concerns?

Rachel: Number 1 is being cautious of social media. Seeing pictures of someone that may be your ‘fitness goals’ is harmful because everyone’s body is different. Even if we do the same thing for the next 3 months, we will look different–and that is looked past on social media. Acknowledge that your body is individual. For me, things that help are unfollowing people that make me feel bad about my body image or contribute negatively to my mental health. Another big thing is looking in the mirror all the time; I went through phases where I wanted different things, and it came to the point where I was looking in the mirror after every meal to see what I looked like. For me as well as for others, that can be detrimental. It’s important to know that what someone does to better their mental health might not work for you. Motivation for people is different–acknowledge that different things fire people up differently, and finding what works for you is important.

Giuliano: Being a part of the fitness industry for 6 years now, I realize that reality is important for finding a balance. I’ve experienced body dysmorphia in the past 3 years. It was only when I accepted the issue on my own and moved past denial that I started to recognize its impact on my life. The people around you can be resources, so utilize your friends and family to help, but also professional help can be useful! Be honest with your doctor, or follow a plan by a dietician–personalize your journey to what you want to achieve. Like Rachel said, choose what you're stimulating your mind with–unfollow people that contribute negatively to your mental state, and don’t set unattainable goals. You have the choice of who you follow or reducing screen time. These are little tips to get your mind right and focus on yourself.

What can you suggest to someone who does not like “conventional forms” of physical activity such as going to the gym or running?

Giuliano: I would say find something that gets your heart rate up that you enjoy doing–it can be little things, like throwing a football or playing ping pong, just as long as you're getting up and moving around. I truly believe exercise is medicine; there’s something for everyone, you just need to find it. As a coach, the results and getting clients to achieve their goals is all about personalization.

Rachel: It’s important to note that your mind can trick you. If you're in a bad state of mind, sometimes you don’t want to do anything, and that’s when it's important to push past that because sometimes you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone. I have a good friend that hated the gym–you can think you don’t like working out because you don’t like the gym atmosphere. Now that she started at-home workouts, she’s loving it! It is important to not box yourself in. Maybe you don’t like going for a walk around your block, but you may enjoy a hike in a nice conservation area.

About the Author

I'm Caterina! I am currently in my third year at McMaster majoring in Social Psychology, minoring in Mental Health and Addictions, with a certification in Business Studies. On my off time, I love working out, doing yoga or playing with my new puppy! I am very passionate about advocating for self-care; whether it's down time or being physically active, it is always important to set time aside in your day to do something positive for yourself.

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