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The Fitness Zone

Exercise as Part of a Holistic Approach to Health
September 29, 2020 | by Oliver Kitchingman

What is holistic health?

You hear the term ‘holistic health’ a lot these days, but what does it actually mean? Essentially, it refers to processes that positively impact the mind as well as the body.

When it comes to a holistic approach to health, we might consider physical activity as one element, because we know that it positively affects the body. In fact, however, it can promote dual aspects of our wellbeing, because exercise benefits not only the physical body, but also mental and emotional wellbeing.

What is mental health?

The World Health Organisation describes mental health as ‘a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’

Mental health and physical health are interconnected. When we are suffering physically it can lead to depression or anxiety, and those who suffer from mental health issues can be less inclined to participate in a daily exercise routine.

How does exercise improve mental health?

Exercise can help our mental health by:

- increasing serotonin and endorphins in our brains, which make us feel good

- improving sleep

- increasing self-esteem

- focusing our attention on activity rather than negative thoughts

In addition, exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for controlling memory, and has a positive effect on the connections between nerve cells in the brain, helping prevent the onset of disease and cognitive decline. We’ve seen clear evidence that exercise has real impacts on the body and those benefits extend to the mind. 

Improved mental clarity and emotions

Exercise also improves mental clarity. Many people attest to regular physical activity’s ability to increase their energy, focus and levels of concentration. In addition to this, working up a sweat provides a healthy outlet for stress and negative emotions. A regular exercise routine can enhance our moods, sense of achievement and confidence. In fact, research has shown that exercise reduces the risk of depression (see below).

Low-intensity movement and mental health

Exercise does not have to be high intensity to provide benefits for mental health. Pilates, yoga, qi gong, tai chi and other activities with Eastern origins are examples of holistic exercises that promote an awareness of the body and mind, and provide a sense of balance and harmony. A regular Pilates or yoga practice can strengthen the body as part of an overall training regime for intense sporting activities like rugby, swimming or tennis, while also calming the mind.

A simple yoga practice can help increase mindfulness, relaxation and patience, with many forms of yoga emphasising the breath and focus of the mind. While some branches of modern yoga concentrate more on its physical aspects, according to the Yoga Institute, the practice is a ‘holistic multi-dimensional system of health and well-being that focuses on the mind and its functions, with multi-component mind-body practices, including physical postures and movement, breathing exercises, deep relaxation, and mindfulness and meditation’.

Exercise and depression

Globally, depression is the leading cause of disability. Levels of neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA are lower in people who have depression, and exercise can reverse this, as discovered by researchers at the Davis Medical Centre at the University of California.

Sitting for prolonged periods is linked to poor health outcomes, and those who sit for longer are at a higher risk of anxiety and depression. These findings highlight the relationship between physical health and mental health.

How does exercise improve physical health?

The benefits of exercise on physical health include weight loss, improved cardiovascular capacity, increased strength and a reduced likelihood of heart disease. While exercise itself is a stressor on the body, when performed in moderate amounts it protects against the onset of neurodegenerative diseases and contributes towards optimal brain performance.

With intense physical activity such as running, a HIIT class or a boxing for fitness session, the body is flooded with oxygen, and muscles worked to their limits. It's typical with such exercise, however, to experience a sense of euphoria following the workout (and even, if we're not gasping for air, during it!).

You can’t have one without the other

The focus of a holistic approach to health is on improving both mental and physical aspects. Physical exercise can improve our mental health in numerous ways, and improving mental health can put us in the frame of mind to do more exercise. Now that’s a win-win.


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This content is not intended to be used as individual health or fitness advice divorced from that imparted by medical, health or fitness professionals. Medical clearance should always be sought before commencing an exercise regime. The Institute and the authors do no take any responsibility for accident or injury caused as a result of this information.

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