Including mental health in your fitness regime

It’s important to understand that mental health is important to all of us, and not only to those who have a mental illness

By Dr Seema Mehrotra

When you are doing well, why bother about your health? Given the rise in health consciousness, this may sound like a foolish question to ask. This implies that we are realizing the importance of preventing health problems and of enhancing fitness because we see its relevance in leading a satisfying and productive life.

Now, while you were reading the above paragraph, what were you visualizing? There is a high chance that you were thinking of people jogging on the roads in the morning, or working out at a gym, or of the elderly doing their daily rounds of brisk morning walk. It is also likely that you were recollecting images of health-food advertisements on the television or the nutritional advice in a popular magazine.

Now let me ask you. Did you include mental health in your imagery or thoughts? Did you imagine a person sharing his distress with a close friend or a counsellor? Did you imagine someone writing down potential ways to handle her anger? Did you picture someone reading a self-help book on managing one’s anxiety or low self-esteem? Did you imagine a person setting goals for improving his interpersonal skills or attending a program on cultivating positivity?

My guess is that the answer is ‘no’. It is good if you did think about any of these, or if you start becoming conscious of the fact that health includes mental health.  

Of course there are times we take our physical health to be granted, but this is far more common in the case of mental health. In fact, the term mental health itself has become synonymous with mental illness and we erroneously think that mental health is an issue of concern only for people who have a mental disorder.  

Prevention of mental health problems and promotion of mental health and well-being are as important as working for physical health and fitness.  There is a large body of research that shows that physical and mental health are closely connected and influence each other. A study published in the WHO’s bulletin observes that research studies that have demonstrated the complex links between physical and mental health (e.g., Individuals with type II diabetes mellitus are twice as likely to experience depression as the general population or that the treatment of depressive symptoms after a heart attack lowers mortality as well as re-hospitalization rates.)  What we need to remember is that both mental and physical health need to be looked after and taking care of one is not a substitute for taking care of the other.

Developing habits and practices that help maintain or enhance our mental health and well-being can help in building resilience and the capacity to bounce back from major adversities in life. Paying attention to mental wellbeing is a wise choice because it is closely linked to our productivity and functioning in various domains of life, as shown in a study by a team of Gallup researchers.

Taking care of mental health is not yet a popular idea, not just because of the stigma that tarnishes the image of mental health in the minds of people but also because mental health seems a rather vague and abstract concept that leaves us with few ideas on how to take care of it .

A few steps involved in the process of working on enhancing one’s mental health and wellbeing include developing psychological skills or competencies that help in strengthening resilience for example, skills in regulating our negative emotions, skills in cultivating positive emotions in ways that are health-enhancing; (as observed in studies published by the Cambridge University Press, the Association for Psychological Science, and the International Journal of Psychological Studies), avoiding quick-fix methods of ‘feeling good’ that are destructive in the longer run, seeking support from others and including a professional ( when needed)  for  sharing  a mental health concern. These are merely examples. The ways and means to nurture our mental well-being are plenty. So, let us start this dialogue in our minds and with each other!

Dr Seema Mehrotra is additional professor of clinical psychology at NIMHANS. She coordinates activities of the Positive Psychology unit in her department, which revolve around mental health promotion research, service and training, with a special focus on youth.