Getting through a day with depression can be exhausting. The sadness, diminished energy, and low sense of self-worth can be enough to make getting out of bed a challenge. People with depression and other mental health conditions often find themselves able to manage only the most crucial tasks, with things like exercise and nutrition falling by the wayside.
Mental Illness Can Lead to Earlier Death
It is well known that suicide and accidents are more common among people with mental health conditions, but people with these types of health conditions also die younger when looking exclusively at natural causes. The Western Journal of Medicine published a study that examined why people with mental health conditions die younger than people who don’t suffer from mental illness, and they found among people with mental illness:
- More smokers – leading to increased heart and lung issues
- Less exercise – increasing the risk of obesity, diabetes, and arthritis
- Diets that were higher in fat and lower in fiber – which can cause obesity and heart issues
- Higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse – known to intensify mental health concerns and lead to a variety of physical health issues, depending on the substances used.
Difficulty Accessing Health Care
For people with mental illness, an added barrier to physical health may be difficulty accessing medical care. Medical doctors may feel less comfortable treating patients who struggle with these types of health conditions or may not thoroughly investigate physical health complaints, assuming the complaints are imagined or part of the known mental health conditions.
Patients with certain mental illnesses may be less capable of getting and keeping appointments and vocalizing physical health concerns to their doctors. Patients with psychosis may also struggle to trust medical professionals and be unwilling to share important information with doctors.
Issues Caused by Medications
The very medications that are used to treat mental health conditions can also impact a person’s hormones, neurological functioning, heart, and weight, leading to physical health issues. If a person is on medication that can have these sorts of effects, they need to work closely with their doctor to monitor for indications of problems. Medication changes may sometimes be necessary to avoid long-term health issues.
Physical Health Also Impacts Mental Health
While mental illness can create physical health problems, the reverse is also true. Physical health issues, especially chronic conditions, can also create or exacerbate mental illness. For example, people with psoriasis are more likely to experience depression, and people who struggle with cancer or heart attacks are at heightened risk for depression and anxiety.
Fighting Mental Illness with Exercise
Though it may be difficult for people with mental health concerns to find the energy to exercise, experts consistently recommend physical activity. Exercise can:
- Release “feel good” chemicals in the brain
- Provide a distraction
- Increase confidence
- Offer social interaction
- Add to healthy coping skills
Exercise doesn’t have to be anything as structured as taking a class or getting a gym membership, though some people do find it helpful to do those things. It can also include taking a walk, tending a garden, or going for a bike ride. If you enjoy the activity, you are more likely to repeat it in the future. If you’re in doubt, it may be good to talk to your doctor before starting the activity you’re considering.
While 30 minutes per day, 3 to 5 times per week, is generally considered an ideal amount of exercise, even 10-15 minutes of daily activity has been found to be potentially beneficial for mental health, especially with more vigorous activities.
What Else Can be Done?
Additional recommendations for maintaining mental and physical health include:
- Getting adequate sleep
- Avoiding alcohol and drugs
- Eating a nutritious diet
- Utilizing mindfulness and other relaxation techniques (YouTube videos can help you get started)
- Seeking out support from other people (family, friends, therapist, support groups)
If you have questions about the interaction between mental and physical health, the staff at Highland Hospital in West Virginia is available to provide information and support.