Fit body, fit mind

We've all heard the saying: "healthy body, healthy mind", right? Have you ever wondered why? Or are you still sceptical about this mind-body connection? Have a look at what Health24's experts have to say.

It was the seventeenth-century philosopher Rene Descartes who conceptualised this mind-body distinction, and, largely because of his influence, for centuries people viewed mind and body as separate. In more recent times, mental health advocates have been fighting to get them reunited.

"The time has come to reinforce what we stand for – mind and body are inseparable: health is a complete state of well-being – and there is no physical health without mental health," says a spokesperson for the Mental Health Information Centre.

What is the connection?
One area in which the mind-body connection is clearly apparent, is that of physical exercise, and how it boosts mental health.

People who get into a routine of regular exercise often say that exercise makes them feel good and helps them manage stress more effectively.

The reason for the feel-good effect of exercise is that physical activity releases endorphins, the brain chemicals which influence mood and act as the body's natural painkillers. Exercise has also been shown to improve immunity, making you less likely to get sick.

When you’re fit, your body clock may wake you at 5 am, urging you to tie on those running shoes and get on the road. It's your body's way of demanding its dose of endorphins.

Exercise is thought to bring about additional beneficial mind effects. For instance, the body’s increased core temperature during exercise may help to reduce muscle tension and cause positive alterations in levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.

But beware of overdoing things, warns Prof M.A. Simpson, Health24's Cybershrink. "Exercise is important, so long as you don't get hooked on it, as one can, and as some runners and other exercisers do."

Overtraining in athletes such as swimmers and runners has been shown to cause mood disturbances and depression.

Meditation boosts your immune system
Mind-body interrelatedness works both ways i.e. improving your mental functioning impacts positively on your body too.

A study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that a group of people who participated in an eight-week meditation training programme had stronger immune systems that those who didn't meditate.

The study consisted of 48 men and women, of whom half were randomly selected to participate in three-hour mindfulness classes. The other half of the participants in the group were told they were on the waiting list.

The subjects' brain waves were then measured. The researchers did this because there's an increase in electrical activity in the front left portion of the brain when anxiety levels are low and you experience positive emotions.

Electrical activity was also measured while the subjects did things like write about positive and negative experiences. At the end of the eight-week test, all the subjects were given a flu vaccine and then their immune responses were gauged by measuring the antibody levels their immune systems produced.

Positive thoughts – strong immune system
The half of the group who meditated had the most electrical activity in the front left portions of the brain – indicating the most positive emotions – and they also had the strongest immune response.

It's still not completely understood why meditation is so good for the immune system, but it seems to be linked to the deep rhythmic breathing that accompanies the meditative state. Deep breathing stimulates the circulation of the body's lymphatic system, and getting the lymph fluid moving helps remove toxins from the body.

So do enough high-energy activity, combined with deep breathing, and simultaneously use stillness and solitude to your advantage during your exercise routine, and you will give yourself the best chance to feel on top of the world – physically and mentally. - (Health24, February 2006)

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