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Emotional Fitness through Physical Activity

Sep 25, 2007

The mind-body connection

SheriEmotional Fitness through Physical Activity


By Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM

The mind-body connection
A good reason to try to enhance and uplift your mood is the very well documented, but poorly understood, mind-body connection. Physical health and mental health are undeniably interrelated, and each affects the other; accordingly, your physical well-being often can’t be improved if your psychological problems haven’t been adequately addressed. Depression is an illness affecting both your mind and your body. When in a depressed state, you may feel sluggish, lethargic, apathetic toward your self-care, or downright uninterested in everything. Is it any wonder that it’s difficult to manage your diabetes and stay healthy when you’re depressed? While it’s bad enough that diabetes makes you more prone to depression, even more alarming is the fact that depression apparently increases the likelihood that you–but not your nondiabetic friends–will die in the next 10 years. Out of more than 500 people with diabetes in a recent study, the depressed ones had a 54 percent greater mortality rate than those without depression.

It’s undoubtedly harder to comply with your health-care plan when you feel physically unwell. In addition to sluggishness caused by elevated blood glucose levels, chronic pain–either from diabetic neuropathy or other causes–is common in people with diabetes, with as many as 60 percent of subjects in one study reporting having it. Chronic pain appears to be a major limiting factor in your compliance with basic diabetes self-care, such as regular exercise or taking medications, both of which are important for minimizing your potential for diabetes-related complications and for improving your mental health.

Does stress really cause gray hairs?
A recent study on mothers caring for children who had life-threatening diseases like cancer found an accelerated aging of the mothers’ DNA, so you may actually be right if you believe that excessive or prolonged emotional stress can give you more gray hairs or drive you to an early grave. Stress has a major impact on your circulatory system, and it plays a significant role in susceptibility to, progress in, and outcome of cardiovascular disease.

Not all stress is bad, however–for example, temporary stress during an athletic event may improve your ability to perform both emotionally and physically–but emotional stress due to diabetes or other chronic illnesses is likely more detrimental than helpful. A case in point is the fact that any stress (even simply making it through the holiday season) can suppress your body’s immune function and increase your likelihood of getting sick–even with the common cold–by increasing your cortisol levels. Compound that level of stress day after day by living with diabetes and throw depression into the mix, and it’s easy to understand why people with diabetes need to learn how to control their stress levels before they further negatively affect their physical health.

Achieving emotional fitness
            Personally, I have yet to decide whether my stress disappears after physical workouts because it actually enhances my mood, or if, at that point, I’m just too tired to care about my problems as much. In either case, it is well known that exercise is vitally important in alleviating your feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Everyone–people with and without chronic health conditions–can use regular exercise to relieve mild to moderate symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as to improve mood and self-perceptions. If you’re physically active, particularly if you’re a woman (which already makes you more prone to depression than a man), you’ll experience better mental and physical health and less depression than someone who is physically inactive.

Here’s how exercise comes in as the best “medicine” once again. As I mentioned previously, becoming physically active can also positively affect your self-perceptions, benefiting your self-confidence, self-concept, and self-esteem. Especially for us women and girls, dissatisfaction with our bodies is associated with lower self-esteem. If you perceive yourself as fat and out of shape, you’ll be particularly vulnerable to a negative self-image. We’re all more and more susceptible to such bodily misperceptions because of television; for instance, overweight teens who spend more time watching soap operas, movies, music videos, and sports reportedly have an even greater bodily dissatisfaction and drive for thinness than those who don’t. Exercise acts as “medicine” because it can improve your body shape and size and, consequently, raise your self-esteem and improve your bodily satisfaction, particularly if you’re overweight. Not only can exercise improve your short-term mental state and mood, but you can also use it to increase your overall sense of well-being over the long haul.


Tip of the Day:  If you perceive yourself as fat and out of shape, you will be more vulnerable to a negative self-image. Try exercising to improve your self-esteem. Even a low level of physical activity (e.g., exercising one to two times per week) can positively improve your mental health and attitudes about your physical state–not to mention your physical health itself.


For more information, please consult my newest book, The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan: Living Well and Being Fit, No Matter Your Weight.  Check my Web site (www.shericolberg.com) for more details.  In addition, watch for the upcoming (October 28, 2007) release of my latest book for anyone with diabetes: 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes by Sheri Colberg, PhD, and Steven V. Edelman, MD.