Physical health and happiness have a reciprocal relationship – improving one has the power to improve the other.
Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.
Motivating yourself to lace up your running shoes isn’t exactly easy when you’re feeling low. You may also find yourself seeking a temporary energy boost from foods and drinks loaded with sugars, unhealthy fats, and caffeine. And studies have shown that when we eat poorly, we experience a lighter, less restorative sleep. Left unchecked, this cycle can lead to a decline in both physical and mental health.
When you think of how being physically healthier can change your body, you might think about reshaping your abs or biceps; not your brain. But healthy habits like exercise can actually help your brain to grow and form new connections.
When you take even small steps towards improving your physical health, your mind and mood benefit too.
The health benefits of happiness
Not only does happiness feel good mentally and emotionally, it can transform your physical health in a variety of positive ways. Studies have shown that higher levels of happiness lead to:
Lower blood pressure and a healthier heart
Faster recovery times from illness and surgery
A longer life
The old saying, “laughter is the best medicine” rings true when we consider that happiness can relieve stress, increase antibodies, and help us to better apply coping strategies.
Four healthy habits that benefit the brain
Exercise physically benefits the brain through accelerating neuron growth in the hippocampus (crucial for learning and memory) and increasing the thickness of the cerebral cortex.
With exercise, blood flow to the brain is increased; exposing it to more oxygen and nutrients. Dopamine levels in the brain also increase with exercise, which can reduce levels of stress and depression. In short, you think better and you feel better.
Eating sugary and processed foods may make you feel good in the moment, but eating more vegetables has been shown to increase happiness levels long-term.
Not only does food supply the nutrients that keep your brain healthy, but the microorganisms in your gut (which change depending on your diet) can influence your mood through their direct impact on the nerves and hormones of the central nervous system.
Studies have shown that just 2% water loss in adults—an amount typical for just going about daily activities—is enough to impact cognitive function, including a decline in mood.
Your brain’s amygdala is 60% more reactive without quality sleep. Since your amygdala regulates feelings of stress, fear, and anger, you may find that you are more irritable when you’re short on sleep. Being under-slept can also play out in romantic relationships, through an increase in arguments and a lower libido.
Check in with yourself
How do you feel when you eat nutritious foods? Or get a good night’s sleep? What’s your daytime mood and energy level like when you exercise in the morning? Is there one aspect of your physical health that could use some extra attention right now?
If you’re ready to improve your physical health and/or happiness, research studies offer some promising news:
Exercise can make you happier, and happy people are more likely to exercise.
Eating a nutritious diet can make you happier, and happy people make healthier food choices.
Getting quality sleep makes you happier, and happy people sleep better.
Notice a pattern? When you take even one step to improve your physical health, you initiate a positive feedback loop for wellness.
Five strategies for greater health and happiness
Experts recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise per week for overall health. But even small amounts—10 minutes at a time, or one day a week—cardio has been shown to improve happiness.
Add in some weight training, and you could increase confidence and self-esteem, while lowering levels of depression and anxiety. Yoga is another excellent option, proven to increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, which decreases anxiety and improves mood.
2. Eat nutrient-dense foods
A diet high in sugar, trans fats, and processed foods, can increase your risk for depression. Diets high in fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins and fats (like fish and nuts) are better for mental well-being.
Not only is what you eat important, but how you eat matters too. Slowing down and eating mindfully allows you to fully connect to your senses, take pleasure in your food, and de-stress.
3. Drink plenty of water
Wash down those nutrient-dense foods with plenty of water—to boost happiness of course—and improve cognitive function.
Experts say that adequate daily fluid intake for men is 3.7 litres a day for men, and 2.7 litres of fluids a day for women. Drinking sufficient water also helps combat headaches and fatigue, so you can run that extra lap if you feel like it.
4. Take bedtime seriously
Sleeping 7-9 hours a night is optimal for adults. People who get insufficient sleep are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Sticking to a consistent bedtime and wake time (with room for 7-9 hours of sleep in-between) is a good starting point.
5. Enjoy a massage
Healthy habits don’t have to be hard work! Massage stimulates the release of serotonin and dopamine, and has been shown to improve sleep, promote relaxation, and can reduce anxiety and depression.
For elderly, disabled, or pregnant people, massage is an excellent way to look after your body when exercise may be difficult.
Today’s action steps
Get moving! Whether it’s for 10 minutes or an hour, squeeze a little bit of exercise into your day. Even short bouts of exercise can help to boost your mood. Walk, climb stairs, dance in the elevator like no one’s watching… it doesn’t have to be a difficult workout.
Snack on high-fibre fruits and vegetables. If you find yourself craving sugary or high-fat processed foods today, try reaching for plants, healthy proteins, and good fats first. Prepare and carry a healthy snack with you to set yourself up for success.
When did you get to bed last night? And how do you feel today? Sleep (or lack of) can seriously impact your mood, so aim to get to bed at least 30 minutes earlier tonight.
Making even small positive changes in exercise, diet, or sleep can make you happier. And when you feel happier, it’s easier to stay motivated and maintain healthy habits over time. Even big changes are possible through small, consistent habits.
Our world-class coaches on Hello Coach can help you start making these small changes and increase your happiness!
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