Getting physical to boost mental health

The old saying ‘A healthy mind in a healthy body’ is true — exercise and fitness are inextricably linked in combating conditions such as depression, anxiety and psychosis


Physical health is mainstream. Our culture is saturated with messages on how to improve your wellbeing, the government regularly runs campaigns targeting obesity, and no one will doubt you if you say you have a broken arm.

In contrast, mental health sufferers can feel as if they are ignored and isolated, with no idea of how to get better, or if a recovery is even possible.

But physical and mental health are inextricably linked. Self-harm, eating disorders and suicide attempts have clear physical ramifications, but other symptoms of mental disorder are less obvious. People with schizophrenia, one of the most common mental illnesses, have an average life expectancy 25 years lower than the general population, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Sufferers are twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, three times as likely to die from respiratory disease, and four times more likely to die as a result of an infectious disease.

Any severe mental illness can lead to coronary heart disease, diabetes, infections, respiratory disease and greater levels of obesity.

And it works the other way too. Physical health problems can cause and exacerbate mental illnesses. Rates of depression are twice as high in people with diabetes, for instance, creating a torturous cycle of worsening health.

Tracy Jacobs, the fitness co-ordinator at Jewish mental health charity Jami, says: "You can't ignore your physical health in regard to mental health. You can't isolate one from the other; they work together."

Ms Jacobs helps Jami clients to cultivate fitness programmes that fit in with their recoveries, incorporating everything from chair-based exercises and meditation to disco dancing.

She said: "It's been proven that physical exercise greatly improves mental health. There's a great connection between stimulating your lymphatic and digestive systems and releasing happy hormones.

"The effect is immediate. The body starts to react immediately, and that lifts the person's mood. People underestimate how much impact it will have on them, and it's lovely to see that change happen."

Ms Jacobs, who helps between 50 and 70 clients every week, said it was vital for the Jewish community to understand the connection. "Physical health sometimes drops by the wayside in terms of priorities in the community. A lot of our culture revolves around food - being told to eat certain types of food at certain times and not being able to make choices - and this can impact on people's mental health."

This combines with a society-wide emphasis on reaching a physical ideal, which is often associated with looking thin. Ms Jacobs said that this pressure "makes people overexercise and undereat, meaning we have a lot of bulimia and anorexia. You have to find a balance".

She urges: "Have a positive image of your body. There's a lot of pressure from our community to look a certain way, a lot of peer pressure. Embrace your differences. It's all about being healthy."

Progress is being made. "Doctors are now starting to refer people for exercise as part of a mental health treatment plan," she said. "The link between mental and physical health is unquestionable, and if we don't look after our physical health, there are implications for your mental health. It's a cycle."

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