The mind-body connection
It's easy to forget we have a body. Those of us interested in personal growth may spend a fortune on workshops, seminars, webinars, podcasts, books, counselling and therapy sessions... and engage in a thousand conversations with those we hope can help us grow or heal. And that's all good, helpful, meaningful stuff.
But if you forget about your body it has a nasty habit of reminding you it's there. Indigestion; back neck and shoulder pain; minor injuries; skin problems like eczema; allergies; constant colds and coughs you just can't shake; headaches and migraines; sudden weight loss or gain; breathlessness or a racing heartbeat are all your body's way of telling you that things aren't quite right and it's time for action.
An executive coach I know told me recently that her 'A-type' clients – the aggressive, impatient, go-getting folk who run our corporations and lead our political parties – ignore all these warning signs until something goes seriously wrong. It takes a heart attack or burnout for them to realise that they're not invulnerable after all; that working 14-hour days for years, under intense pressure, might actually be detrimental to their health; they can't fuel their bodies with caffeine, drink and smoke heavily without paying a price; and that there is life outside the boardroom.
Thankfully, most take the opportunity to invest in their closest relationships, cut down on the hours or switch careers completely, modify their diet and cut down on the booze, get some exercise... and, of course, are far happier and healthier for it.
Keeping your body fit and healthy is also a sorely overlooked aspect of maintaining good mental health. Our bodies and minds are inextricably, symbiotically linked. What is your mind except the messages flowing between synapses in your brain? The hormones secreted by glands throughout your body are controlled by your brain, yet those same hormones have a profound effect on your thoughts, feelings and moods. Psychological problems like stress or anxiety can affect your heart, musculoskeletal system, even your arteries. Neglect any aspect of this exquisitely sensitive, perfectly calibrated system at your peril.
One of the best examples of the way exercise can positively effect your mental health is its impact on depression. Numerous studies over the years have found regular, moderate-intensity exercise (swimming, brisk walking, jogging, cycling, dancing) is as effective at combatting depression as powerful drugs like Prozac or Seroxat. So effective is exercise that GPs now 'prescribe' it to their depressed patients. The NHS Choices site recommends 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week, or 45 minutes to an hour at least three times a week. If that seems too much for now, start small with a walk every lunchtime. Run around with the kids. Do some gardening.
Any exercise, especially outdoors, will have an immediate effect on your mood. And cardiovascular exercise, which raises your heart rate and makes you sweat, stimulates the production of the same neurotransmitters in the brain, like dopamine and serotonin – responsible for regulating mood – as antidepressants. Our have been designed to move by thousands of years of evolution, so it's no surprise that a sedentary lifestyle makes us feel bad, and running around makes us feel good.
If you're suffering from depression and the thought of exercise seems daunting, start small. Walk round the block, then tomorrow two blocks. Do something you used to love, like visiting the park or going for a short swim. Slowly, slowly, the depression will lift. And even if you're not feeling low, it will make all those seminars and workshops and therapy sessions much more effective.