Physical fitness and emotional well-being are undeniably interrelated. It’s hard to delink this extensively documented, but poorly understood mind-body connection. A large part of your emotional well-being is linked with stress and anxiety, the biggest roadblock in achieving the optimum mind-body balance. While it’s impossible to completely eliminate stress, we can learn to manage stress through exercise.
As per a recent online poll conducted by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), around 14 per cent of participants used regular physical activity to cope with stress, 18 per cent reported speaking to friends or family, 17 per cent said sleeping, 14 per cent reported watching movies, while 14 and 13 per cent people said eating and listening to music respectively. While these are already well known coping mechanisms, exercise is one of the most recommended by healthcare experts. Even among ADAA online poll takers who exercise regularly, a healthy percentage is already on the correct path: 29 per cent for walking, 20 per cent for running, and 11 percent for yoga as their preferred method to cope with stress.
Physical health is a good indicator of your mental health
Quite evidently, exercise acts as ‘medicine’ because it can improve your body shape and size and, consequently, raise your self-esteem and improve your bodily satisfaction. If you perceive yourself as fat and out of shape, you’ll be particularly vulnerable to a negative self-image, explains senior clinical psychologist Bhavna Barmi of Fortis Escorts Heart Institute in New Delhi.
“When people feel emotional pain, the same areas of the brain get activated as when people feel physical pain: the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. In one study, these regions were activated when people experienced an experimental social rejection from peers. In another more real-life study, the same regions were activated when people who had recently broken up with romantic partners viewed pictures of the former partner,” she adds.
The most important thing is a sensitive link between our feelings and emotions to the way we react to situations. How we perceive ourselves is a crucial factor in determining emotional well-being.
But what do we understand by emotional well-being?
According to a definition suggested by the World Health Organisation in 2014: “Mental health can be understood as a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community.”
Sports psychologist Mugdha Bavare, who has trained Commonwealth Gold-medallist wrestlers Gita and Babita Phogat, says emotional well-being is based on people’s perception of themselves. “Most of the times we neglect or fail to understand that the way we feel is based on how we perceive ourselves. People who have low self-esteem tend to blame themselves more as compared to those who are high on self-esteem. Also, those who are low on self-esteem, will depend and base their opinions about oneself, on the basis of how others perceive them. For example, if the boss starts questioning the capabilities of an employee, the employee is bound to doubt the same about himself if he is not sure about himself and his potentials. This brings in lot of emotional pain and in the long run it could also lead to certain psychological disorders like depression, anxiety, eating disorders etc.”
The relationship between physical fitness and emotional well-being was established in a study conducted by Finland-based University of Turku. The research said the relationship is well established for diabetes, bone mineral density, coronary heart disease, colon cancer, depression or life-satisfaction. Exercise, the research elucidates, may also strengthen other personal resources, such as self-esteem or social support. This in turn may influence the stress-health relationship. Adopting a new lifestyle or experiencing motor competence may lead to feelings of mastery and confidence in overcoming problems and challenges.
Most importantly, the study made a quick distinction between reducing stress levels and completely eliminating it. It says exercise may offer a protective effect termed as “stress buffering” effect during times of heightened stress. In simpler terms, exercise facilitates quicker stress reduction and returns blood pressure closer to baseline after a hectic event. It is highly effective in limiting the duration of a stress response, the study notes.
Stress, anger, frustration are signs of self-condemnation
But emotional pain is not easy to come to terms with, much less accept. It’s not a black or white, either/or situation. There’s a grey area that is difficult to comprehend because when we ask people “Are you judging yourself?” or “Do you feel you have low-self esteem?”, most say, “No, I’m completely fine.”
“Unfortunately, intense feelings don’t just go away on their own,” says Barmi. “The first step in overcoming frustration and anger is to recognise that you are feeling these emotions. Many people were taught as children not to express frustration and anger,” she explains.
Barmi offers solutions to cope with it: “Talk to someone you trust. Talking may help you become more clear about what you are feeling. Or simply reminding yourself that some things are beyond your control also helps. Letting go of the wish that you could change them may be hard to do. So you may need to remind yourself daily or many times throughout the day that these things are beyond your control.”
But here, you may ask, “What is the point of all this in a story on fitness?”
Because it’s vital to be self-aware. And being self-aware means having a clear perception of your personality. “It includes awareness about one’s strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. Self-awareness also helps you understand other people, how they perceive you, your attitude and your responses to them,” adds Bavare.
Physically fitness doesn’t necessarily mean you’re emotionally healthy
While physical fitness is linked to emotional happiness, the narrative doesn’t always offer straight answers. We all are living in times where a host of fitness and lifestyle magazines thrive on glorifying and peddling the notion of an ‘ideal’ male and female body. This coupled with the ‘gotta have it now’ mindset is setting us up for deeper, psychological problems, where we’re not only looking for faster results but increasingly questioning ourselves for not fitting in with society’s idea of a ‘fit body’.
Slamming this mindset, strength and conditioning coach Deckline Leitao C.S.C.S, who imparts training sessions to athletes in India, makes it amply clear that not all who are physically fit are emotionally healthy. “More often than not fitness literature creates a fear psychosis in people that they’re eating wrong or unhealthy or training wrong,” adding that “It’s probably because the mindset of people, especially from an Indian perspective, is that you have to suffer in order to achieve results.”
It’s not surprising to notice many people push themselves in gyms thinking there’s some virtue in suffering and pain. Which is why we often see people training through pain and injuries but not missing their training sessions. “What they forget is when sportspersons push their bodies through pain they do so not because they enjoy the pain but because they have a set target, which is winning. People need to accept who they are and their physical positives and negatives so that they learn to enjoy the fitness journey rather than aiming for an unrealistic or even unsafe cosmetic goal,” adds Leitao.
Fear of failure keeps many out of shape
The fear of failure can stem from past experiences. If people have lost weight in the past but then quit exercising and dieting and gained it back or gained even more, then it can leave a permanent negative impact on the mind. When we are fear failure we are essentially telling ourselves, “I could embarrass myself” or probably “If I try and fail I will have to face the worst fear about myself: that I am indeed a failure.”
“Popular culture has made it look that getting in shape if about discipline, dedication and a lot of sacrifices. Those with good looking bodies talk about how they managed to do and always make it sound harder than reality, probably to get more credit. This itself can create fear of failure for someone new,” elucidates Leitao.
Here’s what you can start doing right away: Read more about the process involved in your fitness journey.
“I always tell people that when they decide to get fit, the first thing to do is not just to get excited and start exercising, but rather to start reading up and gaining knowledge about what you want to achieve whether it is for gaining muscle, losing fat, running longer, achieving greater flexibility, and even when recovering from an injury.”
Physical fitness is a physical, mental and spiritual journey
Our physical body is a reflection of your emotional well-being. Getting in shape is as much physical as it is mental. When you’re covered with sweat and want to call its quits, that’s when you realise what you’re made of. Just like when we hit a fitness or a weight-loss plateau, we also discover there’s also an emotional wall.