We are in an age of healthy living. Wherever you look, society is fixed on finding ways to improve how we live. At the centre of this collective effort sits a ‘green’ focus. Whether it be our bodies, the planet or consumer culture, everything is experiencing a shift towards more environmentally and spiritually-friendly methods. One of the most conspicuous examples of this shift is the way we as humans are choosing to live. People are adopting healthier ways of life: yoga, meditation, veganism to name a few. It is a life-style choice that has moved from the periphery, to mainstream culture. With the growing issue of mental health, healthy living is a natural solution – healthy body, healthy mind, has never been so relevant. In the age of technology, social media and data overload, remaining in-touch with yourself is most likely the future of living.

It may be the future, but it is a concept thousands of years old. What originated as a Latin phrase in Roman times, has strong links to the ancient Chinese philosophy: Yin and Yang. It is founded upon the idea of a perfect life balance, and that good health only exists when this balance is secure. Accessing this optimal state is said to be achievable when balancing the four quadrants of ourselves: our mind, body, context and spirit. When these work in harmony, well-being is achieved.[1] Despite its historical context, for some it remains farcical. There is, however, an undeniable link between our bodies and minds – a highly complex relationship between physical and mental health.[2] Here, we take a look at how the healthy body, healthy mind concept works; why it is growing in popularity; and why it is a way of life you may wish to consider.

How does it work?

There is more to it than dubious spiritual connections. It is a concept backed by numerous studies and rich evidence. As mentioned, the link between our bodies and minds is direct and undeniable. They are constantly in communication with one another – each affecting how the other functions and responds to certain situations. The body is full of nerve systems which send signals to the brain. It processes these messages, and implements the correct response through control of memory and speech, movement of the arms and legs, and the function of many organs within our body.[3] When the body is active, this link intensifies and endorphins – ‘feel good’ hormones – are released. This feel good factor, is largely, why people exercise. As Nanette Mutrie suggests “physical activity has been consistently associated with positive affect, mood and psychological well-being in large-scale epidemiological studies and cross-sectional studies.” And how conversely, “physical inactivity is associated with more negative emotions.”[4] The relationship between our bodies and minds is, of course, unquestionable. Because of this certainty, it is no surprise that when we look after our bodies, we are simultaneously caring for our mental health. When we do this, we access a range of psychological benefits.

Physical Activity

The most recognisable way to access this healthy body, healthy mind balance is through exercise. It is cheap and easy to do. Although high-intensity and aerobic activity is said to have the most effect, there is no need to buy the latest gym gear, or splash out on a membership: any form of exercise is good exercise. For those unable to afford, or participate in particular types, sometimes walking at least one mile per day is a sufficient way to improve brain health.[5] Aside from releasing endorphins, activity holds the key to a number of other cognitive assets. In fact, a large-scale study, conducted by King’s College London, followed 9,000 individuals from the age of 11 until 50. It revealed that those who had exercised two to three times a month from the age of 11 scored higher in memory, attention and learning tests than those who hadn’t.[6]

As mental health becomes an increasingly pressing issue, the answer may lie in keeping physically fit. As mentioned, endorphins are a major reason why people exercise. It’s also a direct focus on personal improvement, effort and mastery of tasks – a sense of achievement like no other, that has a positive effect on mood and psychological well-being.[7] There is considerable evidence that outlines the positive effect of how staying fit, keeps the mind in shape. A study from 2000 observed 36 randomised controlled trials, which looked at the relationship between physical activity and self-esteem. Positive changes to self-esteem were found in a staggering 76% of all trials. And in 2001, a systematic review of exercise as a treatment for depression showed a large decrease in levels, across the 14 studies. It is also said to boost mood and self-esteem for women going through reproductive challenges, including menstruation, pregnancy and menopause.[8] Mental health is a fragile topic, and it should be treated carefully. Much of the medication used to treat cases can have adverse side-effects. With exercise, there are few strings attached. Afterwards you may feel sore or fatigued, but your mental state will likely be a much better place. It is a proven form of therapy, with concrete literature and evidence to show for it.

As we grow older, the once stable connection between our body and mind does begin to fade. With age, comes a number of potential psychological issues – everything slows down. Many of these are inevitable. Things such as brain atrophy and cognitive decline are part of life; for those suffering from dementia, these are accelerated.[9] Physical activity, however, is an effective treatment for these age-related changes, and as Andrea Weinstein suggests, “higher fitness levels are associated with less brain atrophy and cognitive decline in later life; early and midlife physical activity can protect against late-life brain decay; and exercise can influence the same cognitive domains and supporting brain regions that are most affected by cognitive aging.”[10] There is also evidence that identifies a fit and active body, as capable in preventing – or at least delaying – the onset of dementia.[11] Getting older, should not mean giving up. While the gap between body and mind may seem like it’s widening, staying fit and active is a proactive way to maintain the connection.

Healthy body, healthy mind is interchangeable. As much as the focus has been on how physical activity affects our psychological state, a healthy mind will define a healthy body.[12] The link is undeniable – which also makes it capable of having a detrimental impact on health. For instance, mental health issues may interfere with someone’s ability to maintain a healthy body or lifestyle.[13] Acquiring the correct balance is therefore difficult: both physical and mental states have to work cohesively. It is important to understand that a healthy life balance is not always possible. At the end of the day, it is a process, not an outcome. There will be days where the mind and body feel completely detached; others when they feel completely in sync. When you reach this balance, it’s great. But it is not always guaranteed to last. Keeping fit and healthy is a great way to maintain a stable mind, but there are many things in life that can upset this balance. It is a desirable, but complex connection. Do not panic if you are unable to find it.