Health and Well-Being Matter is the monthly blog of the Director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Everyone has their own way to “recharge” their sense of well-being — something that makes them feel good physically, emotionally, and spiritually even if they aren’t consciously aware of it. Personally, I know that few things can improve my day as quickly as a walk around the block or even just getting up from my desk and doing some push-ups. A hike through the woods is ideal when I can make it happen. But that’s me. It’s not simply that I enjoy these activities but also that they literally make me feel better and clear my mind.
Mental health and physical health are closely connected. No kidding — what’s good for the body is often good for the mind. Knowing what you can do physically that has this effect for you will change your day and your life.
Physical activity has many well-established mental health benefits. These are published in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans and include improved brain health and cognitive function (the ability to think, if you will), a reduced risk of anxiety and depression, and improved sleep and overall quality of life. Although not a cure-all, increasing physical activity directly contributes to improved mental health and better overall health and well-being.
Learning how to routinely manage stress and getting screened for depression are simply good prevention practices. Awareness is especially critical at this time of year when disruptions to healthy habits and choices can be more likely and more jarring. Shorter days and colder temperatures have a way of interrupting routines — as do the holidays, with both their joys and their stresses. When the plentiful sunshine and clear skies of temperate months give way to unpredictable weather, less daylight, and festive gatherings, it may happen unconsciously or seem natural to be distracted from being as physically active. However, that tendency is precisely why it’s so important that we are ever more mindful of our physical and emotional health — and how we can maintain both — during this time of year.
Roughly half of all people in the United States will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime, with anxiety and anxiety disorders being the most common. Major depression, another of the most common mental health disorders, is also a leading cause of disability for middle-aged adults. Compounding all of this, mental health disorders like depression and anxiety can affect people’s ability to take part in health-promoting behaviors, including physical activity. In addition, physical health problems can contribute to mental health problems and make it harder for people to get treatment for mental health disorders.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the need to take care of our physical and emotional health to light even more so these past 2 years. Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General highlighted how the pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis in youth.
The good news is that even small amounts of physical activity can immediately reduce symptoms of anxiety in adults and older adults. Depression has also shown to be responsive to physical activity. Research suggests that increased physical activity, of any kind, can improve depression symptoms experienced by people across the lifespan. Engaging in regular physical activity has also been shown to reduce the risk of developing depression in children and adults.
Though the seasons and our life circumstances may change, our basic needs do not. Just as we shift from shorts to coats or fresh summer fruits and vegetables to heartier fall food choices, so too must we shift our seasonal approach to how we stay physically active. Some of that is simply adapting to conditions: bundling up for a walk, wearing the appropriate shoes, or playing in the snow with the kids instead of playing soccer in the grass.
Sometimes there’s a bit more creativity involved. Often this means finding ways to simplify activity or make it more accessible. For example, it may not be possible to get to the gym or even take a walk due to weather or any number of reasons. In those instances, other options include adding new types of movement — such as impromptu dance parties at home — or doing a few household chores (yes, it all counts as physical activity).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I built a makeshift gym in my garage as an alternative to driving back and forth to the gym several miles from home. That has not only saved me time and money but also afforded me the opportunity to get 15 to 45 minutes of muscle-strengthening physical activity in at odd times of the day.
For more ideas on how to get active — on any day — or for help finding the motivation to get started, check out this Move Your Way® video.
The point to remember is that no matter the approach, the Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (anything that gets your heart beating faster) each week and at least 2 days per week of muscle-strengthening activity (anything that makes your muscles work harder than usual). Youth need 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day. Preschool-aged children ages 3 to 5 years need to be active throughout the day — with adult caregivers encouraging active play — to enhance growth and development. Striving toward these goals and then continuing to get physical activity, in some shape or form, contributes to better health outcomes both immediately and over the long term.
For youth, sports offer additional avenues to more physical activity and improved mental health. Youth who participate in sports may enjoy psychosocial health benefits beyond the benefits they gain from other forms of leisure-time physical activity. Psychological health benefits include higher levels of perceived competence, confidence, and self-esteem — not to mention the benefits of team building, leadership, and resilience, which are important skills to apply on the field and throughout life. Research has also shown that youth sports participants have a reduced risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Additionally, team sports participation during adolescence may lead to better mental health outcomes in adulthood (e.g., less anxiety and depression) for people exposed to adverse childhood experiences. In addition to the physical and mental health benefits, sports can be just plain fun.
Physical activity’s implications for significant positive effects on mental health and social well-being are enormous, impacting every facet of life. In fact, because of this national imperative, the presidential executive order that re-established the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition explicitly seeks to “expand national awareness of the importance of mental health as it pertains to physical fitness and nutrition.” While physical activity is not a substitute for mental health treatment when needed and it’s not the answer to certain mental health challenges, it does play a significant role in our emotional and cognitive well-being.
No matter how we choose to be active during the holiday season — or any season — every effort to move counts toward achieving recommended physical activity goals and will have positive impacts on both the mind and the body. Along with preventing diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and the additional risks associated with these comorbidities, physical activity’s positive effect on mental health is yet another important reason to be active and Move Your Way.
As for me… I think it’s time for a walk. Happy and healthy holidays, everyone!
Yours in health,
Paul Reed, MD
Rear Admiral, U.S. Public Health Service
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health
Director, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion