Where Mental and Physical Health Collide: Notes from a Fitness Novice

Harvard’s campus is abuzz with questions about mental health. Many groups across campus from The Happiness Project to the Student Mental Health Liaisons provide a general student support network for undergraduates. There are five peer counseling groups that directly engage with personal questions pertaining to mental health on campus. Cultural, racialgender & sexuality organizations have also been lauded as safe or welcoming spaces where students can connect with others who have had similar experiences to them. In addition, a multitude of other identity-centered, profession-centered, and arts-centered organizations provide spaces where students with intersecting interests can convene and engage in activities that are directly relevant to their lives. The Office of BGLTQ Student Life, the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, and the Harvard College Women’s Center form a triad of Harvard offices with undergraduate interns that centralize resources for and create programming centered around the communities that they nominally serve, with an ongoing focus on collaboration on intersectional issues. I even recently began participating in Mindfulness and Stress Management sessions through the Wellness Center, which combines components of meditation and yoga to reduce stress induced by various aspects college life. All of these resources, along with the growing interest in discussions about mental health in all parts of the campus, are excellent. It’s moving to see students rallying around each other as a support system that stretches across many reaches of campus life.

It’s still surprising, however, that so few groups engage directly with the importance of physical health and its direct correlation to mental health. As a quick caveat, I have not been to all of the meetings for all of the groups that discuss mental health on campus, so maybe there are some awesome ones out there that do promote physical wellness as a route to improving mental health amongst Harvard students on campus. A group that immediately comes to mind is ECHO, “a peer counseling group that addresses concerns surrounding eating, body image, and self esteem” (ECHO Website, Home Page).

There is plenty of research and inquiry into how physical health and mental health are correlated. Let’s take, for example, the notion of posture. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and professor at the Harvard Business School, gave a recent TED Talk called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” in which she delineates how a person’s physical posture in a social setting is directly correlated to the amount of power they and others perceive that they have in that setting. Put (very) simply, if “posture” is the amount of physical space that one takes up and the manner in which one takes up that space (e.g. arms crossed vs. arms spread above the head in a victory “V”), then Cuddy’s study suggests that you can directly influence how powerful you feel by changing the way you hold your body. How is that related to physical health? According to WebMD.com, increased flexibility and strength—such as that which you can get doing yoga—can lead to better posture. If the workouts you’re doing are improving your posture in the “corporeal alignment” sense, and the physical strength of various components of your body impacts the way you hold your body, and the way you hold your body impacts how powerful you feel, then it logically follows that working out to improve your posture can indirectly impact your personal sense of power.

[If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself! Check yourself throughout the day and note whether your shoulders are hunched forward or squared back, whether your back is straight or slumped, and, if you stand, whether your feet are together or apart. What are your hands doing when you sit in a section and you haven’t done the reading? How do you hold your body in situations when you feel a sense of authority? When you feel less powerful? Try consciously doing the opposite thing for prolonged periods of time and note how that makes you feel, if there’s any difference.]

Okay, so posture is not the only physical expression directly related to mental health. It really takes a sense of awareness and self-evaluation to be able to accurately determine what works for you and what doesn’t. But then you have to apply that self-understanding in proactive practice. If you hate running, then why run?

Part of this practice includes adopting a policy of keen mindfulness about how your physical being is aligned with your mental being and operate on that level all the time. To provide an example from my own experience – I learned the hard way that I couldn’t absorb the essence of the gym just by walking past it…I actually had to go inside and use machines. Then I learned that I wasn’t getting a full-body work-out on the elliptical…so I started swimming. But then I noticed that swimming alone wouldn’t make me physically stronger …I had to learn how to use strength-training machines. But I knew there was a way to do strength-training wrong and end up messing up my body…so I got a personal trainer. So I get so many important tips on form and technique when I work out that I wouldn’t have if I were trying to learn on my own. All of which will ultimately impact important things like my posture(!) because strength training—like dancing and sports—is a way of conditioning your body to certain motions.

But then there’s so much more to being tuned to my own physical health, which includes: paying attention to what I eat; regulating my breathing patterns when I’m anxious; noting my energy levels throughout the day—my body and my mind seem to be in constant conversation that I can’t parse apart, which means that how I treat one invariably affects how the other feels. It seems that I still have so much more to learn. I find I learn the best around other people. When I swim, I usually go with a buddy; I train with a certified fitness professional that also turns out to be a cool person to talk to. (Harvard also offers free resources for learning about strength training and other gym things. This doesn’t have to be an expensive undertaking, especially given that Harvard undergrads have access to top-notch gyms for free. What may prove expensive is down the line when you have to correct physical problems that you didn’t take the time to pay attention to now. Just sayin’.). These days, I associate going to the gym with happy feelings and that makes it a more positive experience, which makes me want to go more. Not only that, but simply engaging in the practice of working out (semi-)regularly helps to reduce mental stress and physical tension that adversely affect every aspect of my day-to-day life.

All that to say, incorporate embodied consciousness into the way you think about your daily life.  Bring it up in your student group meetings when they start to talk about how to improve mental health. Squeeze a trip to the gym into your calendar and bring a friend along. Go when you hit a block in a paper. Pay attention to what and how much you eat in the dhall. Drink water (But, actually.) Take a walk to wake yourself up in the morning. Keep a journal and take notes about how your body feels and how your mind feels, make adjustments where things aren’t quite aligning (i.e. join a yoga class to improve flexibility and strength), then track over time how those adjustments impact your whole self. Do all of this with a friend, with your blocking group – keep each other motivated and help each other associate a positive sense of physical self with a positive mental state so this brand of mindfulness can stretch into your long-term, post-undergrad lifestyle.

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3 thoughts on “Where Mental and Physical Health Collide: Notes from a Fitness Novice

  1. Great post! i appreciate that you have linked mental health to physical fitness. Few people talk about it, but weight is also a big part of our mental well being. Going to the gym and looking at different ways to be physically fit does not have to impact our weight per se but it gives anyone a sense of accomplishment about doing something that can only help in the long run. It does help us appreciate our bodies for what they are. Body image is tied into our happiness, but staying active can also help us stop caring so much about how we look.

  2. Yippee!!!

    I LOVE that Ted talk by Amy Cuddy; it’s truly great and touching and easy and useful.

    Also,

    “my body and my mind seem to be in constant conversation that I can’t parse apart, which means that how I treat one invariably affects how the other feels”

    ^snaps.

    THAS MY BLOCKMATE!!!!!

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