Holistic health care is a phrase that seems to be forever bandied around in alternative medicine articles and in the media. But what does it actually mean? A good online definition from wordnetweb is “holistic medicine treats the mind as well as the body”.
With that in mind, we can confidently say that exercise is an essential factor contributing to the process of an individual’s overall health. Exercise benefits not only our physical bodies, but also our mental and emotional wellbeing.
When it comes to a holistic approach to health, we might consider physical activity as one aspect of our approach, when in fact it can promote dual aspects of our wellbeing, both physical and mental.
The World Health Organisation describes mental health as “a state of well-being 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.
Exercise can help our mental health in the following ways:
Exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for controlling memory. It also benefits the connections between nerve cells in the brain, helping prevent the onset of disease.
The benefits of exercise on physical health are well documented and include weight loss, increased cardiovascular capacity, increased strength and a reduced likelihood of heart disease. Exercise itself is a stressor on the body, but when performed in moderate amounts it protects against the onset of neurodegenerative diseases and contributes towards optimal brain performance.
After intense exercise such as running or a Thai boxing class, it’s typical to feel a sense of euphoria afterwards and often – if we’re not gasping for air – during the workout. Our bodies are flooded with oxygen, and our muscles are being worked to their limits. Exercise also improves mental clarity. Many people say that with a regular exercise routine they feel focused and energized with increased levels of concentration. Exercise also works on our emotions in that it provides a healthy outlet for stress and negative emotions such as anger and sadness. A regular exercise routine can enhance our moods and increase our sense of achievement and confidence. Evidence shows that exercise reduces the risk of depression and cognitive decline.
Exercise does not have to be of a high intensity to provide benefits for mental health. There are certain types of exercises that help develop your body, mind and spirit to bring about a sense of balance and harmony. Activities such as yoga, pilates, qi-gong, tai-chi and other activities with Eastern origins are examples of holistic exercises that bring about an awareness of the body and mind, and provide balance to an individual. Particular types of holistic exercises such as pilates, yoga or dynamic stretching can strengthen and buffer your body for various types of intense sporting activities like rugby, swimming or tennis.
A simple yoga practice can help increase mindfulness, relaxation, focus and patience. Many yoga practices emphasise the breath and focus of the mind. Some branches of yoga today concentrate more on the physical aspects of the practice, but according to the Yoga Institute, yoga 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’.
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 outcomes are independent of the benefits of exercise, but nevertheless highlight the importance of our physical health in maintaining our mental health.
The focus of a holistic approach to health is on improving both mental and physical aspects without neglecting either. Physical exercise can improve our mental health in numerous ways, and improving mental health can allow us to do more exercise.
Find out about fitness courses at the Australian Institute of Fitness.