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While there are numerous studies in support of the fact that the state of our mental health has a significant impact on our overall physical health, and vice versa, society has been slow to respond in making the necessary changes that can help lead to both optimal mental and physical health.
According to the CDC, mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health. For example, depression increases the risk of many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Conversely, having a chronic illness stemming from poor health habits can also lead to depression.
How Do We Break the Cycle?
By focusing on what we can control. While this may sound like a tall order, there are small steps anyone can take daily to reach a healthier mental and physical lifestyle. Outlined below are three steps rooted in preventative care that can help increase physical and mental well-being.
1. Take incremental steps away from problem areas.
First and foremost, I suggest addressing what I refer to as the “Four Pillars of Health.” These include sleep, physical activity, nutrition, and community-stress management—the latter being time spent with family, meditative practice, and other activities to help you unwind and focus.
We live in a time when many industries, specifically hospitals and medical institutions, as well as colleges and universities, have experienced increased burnout and loss. This should serve as an indicator that something needs to change. While it is virtually impossible to overhaul your life overnight, there are many small steps that can lead to big changes in the long run.
The first step is to look for small ways you can weave healthy practices into your day. Examples of this can include trying a new exercise program, taking the stairs instead of the elevator for extra steps, blocking a set amount of time in your day to journal, putting your phone away for an hour to avoid the temptation of social media, and pausing—even if it is simply sending a text—to interact with loved ones. By starting small, you begin to tackle “problem areas” in a more manageable way. Once one of these small steps has become routine then you are ready to add another and then another.
2. Move your body any time you can.
Studies have long shown integrating physical activity into our daily lives has a host of physical health benefits such as improving brain health, weight management, reducing the risk of disease, strengthening bones and muscles, and improving our ability to do everyday activities. Additionally, regular exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits as well.
This does not mean you need to implement a strict exercise program. For example, a recent study shows that taking just a five-minute stroll every half hour when possible can lower blood pressure. If you work in a hospital, use the stairs, if you are studying for a test, set a timer and take a quick walk—we often encourage our students to take advantage of their location in the Bahamas and walk the beach.
The trick is being intentional to identify any pocket of time, even just five minutes, to make a move. While it may not always be convenient, we have access to exercise pretty much anywhere. A bonus of these short exercise snacks is increased focus and alertness.
3. Seek out help and available resources.
Today, we have more substantial resources than ever before when it comes to access and education around physical and mental wellness.
One of the most overlooked opportunities is the support that many workplaces offer through employee assistance programs, as well as benefits surrounding mental health needs. While this is a resource over 97 percent of U.S. companies with more than 5,000 employees provide, one survey reports that the employee assistance utilization rate is only 2 to 3 percent. In addition to employees having access to different mental health means, many students also have access to mental health support they may be unaware of.
How We Can Help One Another Be Healthier
As much as it is up to the individual to prioritize their health, leaders such as business owners, faculties, or loved ones can take a supportive role. While these tips can be implemented by anyone, our medical students can serve as a great “case study” as they can be faced with a variety of barriers to adopting healthy practices.
Considering the long-term effects of the past few years on the heels of a global pandemic, fostering an environment that allows for connection, diversity, and teachable coping mechanisms is key to helping anyone grow.
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