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The Connection Between Physical and Mental Health

Many of us seriously underrate how strongly our body affects our state-of-mind. We don’t realize how strongly poor diet, lack of sleep, and too little exercise can affect our emotional and mental health.

Better Nutrition Can Alleviate Depression and Anxiety

Over the past decade, interest in how diet affects mental health has grown considerably. Large studies have found that habitual consumption of an unhealthy diet (defined as high in processed foods) is associated with increased risk of depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adolescents.1

A study employing a “diet intervention” in which participants were given food hampers filled with vegetables, fruits, legumes, and fish oil supplements as well as a cooking workshop, found an improvement in depression symptoms after three months. The effects were shown to hold over time with sustained improvements found at a six-month follow-up evaluation.

Exercise Can Profoundly Affect Mood and Improve Memory

The effects of regular exercise on the brain are profound and almost immediate. Changes in mood are so quick you can try it yourself (after talking to your doctor about beginning an exercise program!) and see how you improve.

Over time, the beneficial effects of exercise can be found for mood, attention, and memoryResearchers believe that exercise directly affects thinking and memory by reducing insulin resistance and inflammation as well as encouraging the production of new blood vessels in the brain while promoting the overall health of new brain cells.2

Regular exercise may be effective for reducing some of the symptoms of severe mental illness. Aerobic exercise has been shown to be an effective therapeutic intervention for people with schizophrenia, with simultaneous improvements in psychiatric symptoms and physical health.4

The benefits of exercise apply across the age spectrum. In a large study (n=9702) of Canadian adolescents (aged 14–15 years), the odds of having moderate and severe symptoms of depression and anxiety compared with no symptoms was 1.43 times higher in physically inactive youth relative to physically active youth.6

Sleep Habits Affect Mood and Brain Function

When we are pressed for time, one of the first things we sacrifice is sleep. Staying up late, waking up early, and taking substances that reduce our quality of sleep has a negative effect on state of mind. Clinicians and researchers have documented the connection between sleep and mood, and it has been estimated that approximately 90% of those suffering from depression complain of poor sleep quality.3

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Sleep deprivation affects many areas of the brain, including the amygdala (responsible for threat detection and emotion processing), the hippocampus (involved in memory formation), the forebrain (involved in motor control and autonomic functioning), and the neocortex (involved in higher cognitive functions, such as language and reasoning). Chronic sleep deprivation can cause a cascade of imbalances and negative effects on our mental and cognitive functioning.

The Implications for Self-Care and Mental Health

In order to give ourselves the best chance at overall happiness and wellbeing, we need to take a holistic approach to our health. The body and mind are not separate. Our physical and our mental health are more linked than we often realize, and together they create the very core of our experience.

For many people, healthy eating, regular exercise, and getting enough sleep are key factors in reaching and sustaining improved mental health.


  1. O’neil, A., Quirk, S. E., Housden, S., Brennan, S. L., Williams, L. J., Pasco, J. A., … & Jacka, F. N. (2014). Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review. American journal of public health, 104(10), e31-e42.
  2. Godman, H. (2014). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Harv Health Lett.
  3. Tsuno, N., Besset, A., & Ritchie, K. (2005). Sleep and depression. The Journal of clinical psychiatry.
  4. De Moor, M., & de Geus, E. (2018). Causality in the Associations Between Exercise, Personality, and Mental Health. In The Exercise Effect on Mental Health (pp. 91-123). CRC Press.
  5. Kelley, G. A., Kelley, K. S., & Callahan, L. F. (2018). Community-deliverable exercise and anxiety in adults with arthritis and other rheumatic diseases: a systematic review with meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ open, 8(2), e019138.
  6. Bélair, M. A., Kohen, D. E., Kingsbury, M., & Colman, I. (2018). Relationship between leisure time physical activity, sedentary behaviour and symptoms of depression and anxiety: evidence from a population-based sample of Canadian adolescents. BMJ open, 8(10), e021119.
The Connection Between Physical and Mental Health

Fabiana Franco, Ph.D.

Dr. Fabiana Franco is a Clinical Professor of Psychology at the George Washington University and sees clients in New York and Washington DC.

APA Reference
Franco, F. (2019). The Connection Between Physical and Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 2 Mar 2019 (Originally: 3 Mar 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 2 Mar 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.