While writing The Importance of Physical Activity Part II earlier this week, I realized there was much more I wanted to say about stress, mental health, and physical activity. I truly believe health and wellness requires a multi-faceted approach. Only when we respect our bodies in all domains by moving, eating right, getting enough sleep, and taking care of ourselves both physically and mentally, can we achieve our best selves.

This week, I hope to spread some motivation and inspiration by sharing a wellness model called the Indivisible Self, and exploring the ties between our mental health and physical health!

The Indivisible Self is a wellness model grounded in psychological theory and practice, and based on over 25 years of research in the field of wellness. In this model, the ideas of body, mind, and spirit are integrated, and ultimately, inseparable. The five domains making up the Indivisible Self are the Creative, the Coping, the Social, the Essential, and the Physical. To understand wellness, we must then look at the whole person. Today we will look at the Physical self as it is the most closely tied to fitness, but if mental health and stress response is something you’re interested in, please let me know and I would be happy to continue talking about all five domains in later posts!

First, a little review about how our bodies deal with stress. Stress is both a physiological and psychological response experienced when encountering a threat that we feel we do not have the resources to deal with. In what is commonly known as the fight-flight-freeze response, our body’s systems prepare us to face new threats through stimulation of the autonomic nervous system and endocrine system. Stimulation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system triggers the body’s survival instincts when processing new information. This can result in many physiological reactions, including blood vessel constriction, increased heart rate, increased respiration, and decreased digestive activity.

Similarly, the endocrine system consists of glands that secrete hormones into the bloodstream in response to stress. In the presence of a stressor, the pituitary gland and hypothalamus communicate to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland. ACTH then travels to the adrenal glands and triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal cortex. Cortisol enables the body to maintain steady supplies of blood sugar.

While the body’s response to stress is designed to help a person survive when faced with an immediate threat, prolonged activation of these systems can ultimately lead to a decline in a person’s health. For example, the release of cortisol enables a person to deal with the immediate threat, but this reaction suppresses the immune system and makes a person more open to illnesses [immunosuppression].

The Physical Self is comprised of two factors: exercise and nutrition. Research supports that exercise and nutrition are key factors in maintaining a person’s health, especially during changes in the life span. Preliminary data suggests that individuals who live the longest regularly attend to both exercise and nutrition. Exercise and nutrition are two of the most common methods utilized in holistic health, and provide easily measurable changes. Rather than dealing with the purely mental or spiritual aspects of well-being, the physical self consists of the body and how the choices we make effect it’s health, both mentally and physically.

Physical activity is any body movement produced by skeletal muscle contraction resulting in energy expenditure above resting levels. This includes activities of daily living, sports, and focused exercise. Physical activity earns many physical rewards, such as improved cardiovascular health, decreased risk of chronic disease, and weight loss and muscle gain [Check out the Benefits Galore post for more in-depth health benefits from physical activity!]. Physical activity can also influence mental benefits as well. Physical activity and exercise have been demonstrated to promote positive changes in one’s mental health and ability to cope with stressful encounters; those who exercise have lesser rates of depression, negative affectivity, and anxiety.

Apart from these direct responses, a recent review concluded that exercise buffers the effects of stress on the body’s systems. For instance, exercise prevents stress-induced immunosuppression. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and therefore reduces the risk of contracting an illness due to immunosuppression. Considering the seemingly profound effects of exercise on stress, movement has been conceptualized as a method to inoculate individuals against the throes of stressful experiences. Just by adding more movement to your day, you can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease, increase longevity, and improve your mental health!

Incorporating physical activity into everyday life can help get the blood flowing and relieve stress. Current national guidelines recommend accumulating 150 minutes of aerobic, moderate-intensity physical activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, a week. This can be anything from walking, jogging, biking, swimming, hiking, dancing, rowing, yoga, mowing the lawn; anything that gets you up and moving!

Similar to physical activity, nutrition also has a reciprocal relationship with stress. When the body is not fueled with nutritious foods, stress can take a great toll on our health. Worry and overwork can lead to unhealthy lifestyle habits, which causes more stress, leading to a very harmful cycle, including eating the “wrong” foods, skipping meals, and forgetting to drink water.

Poor nutrition can also lead to lowered immunity responses so you’re more susceptible to illnesses, both minor and major. On the other hand, food can be implemented in intervention programs to combat stress and ensure the body’s health in the presence of a stressor. For example, comfort foods, like a bowl of warm oatmeal, boost levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical. Other foods, such as oranges and sweet potatoes, can cut cortisol levels. Vitamin C, B vitamins, Iron, Potassium, and Calcium have been referred to as “stress busting” foods as they have been helpful in lowering cortisol and adrenaline levels when used in nutrition interventions.

General dietary guidelines for managing stress include eating regularly, consuming healthy fats, including a variety of fruits and vegetables, adding high fiber foods, and trading in caffeine for sleep. Some cortisol is necessary for the body to survive, but proper dietary management will regulate it and keep it from swinging wildly out of control. By eating the right types and amounts of certain foods, cortisol will be forced to return to its original function of moderating the body.

The Physical Self is a unique domain in the Indivisible Self as it deals solely with the concrete ideas of the physical body and how a person’s choices can affect it. Physical activity and a healthy, nutritious diet benefit the body by providing energy and nutrients the body requires to function well. Physical activity and nutrition have also been shown to combat stress by improving cardiovascular health, reducing stress hormones, and shoring up the immune system. Though these interventions often require long term, lifestyle changes, they are two of the most effective holistic methods for battling stress and living a healthy life.

“Take care of your body, it’s the only place you have to live in.”

These words have really resonated with me over the course of my studies and fitness journey. We only get one shot at this crazy life, one chance to make the most of it. At the end, do you want to have to explain to yourself how you spent so much time inactive and negligent of your body’s needs, how you deferred to countless medications and treatments rather than put in the work? Or do you want to be able to rejoice because you know you lived your best possible life and treated your body with the care it deserves?

Our health, whether problematic or exemplary, is always there, it will never disappear with time. The choices we make today will affect us years down the road. You can’t expect changes if you’re not willing to put in the effort. Attend that fitness class, climb that mountain, enter that race. Love and nourish your body with fueling foods, and know that a sugar splurge once in a while isn’t the end! Get those eight hours of sleep, take a break from the screens, and make time to unwind and see to your mental health. Only through a whole body approach can we live our best lives, and feel our best.

Respect your body and it will love you right back!

As always, please drop a comment or message me if you enjoyed this content and let me know what other topics you would enjoy seeing!

Until next time,

The Girl Behind the Blog

Interesting Links:

Read more about how exercise can reduce stress from Harvard Heath Publishing

Read about UNC’s Campus Health Services top tips on combating stress with diet

Read about the basics of stress and relaxation techniques

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