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A Sound Body, a Healthy Mind

Paying heed to one enhances the other, experts say

SATURDAY, Nov. 4, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- You eat right, get enough sleep, and see your doctor when you should.

That's all well and good, but a growing body of research shows that a really healthy body relies on a stimulated, contented mind.

"Physical and mental well-being are closely intertwined," said James Maddux, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., and a leading expert on the physical benefits of good mental health.

According to Maddux, achieving a balance among the emotional, spiritual and physical facets of health should be an end in itself. It also means paying attention to those aspects of life that can bring you pleasure or pain.

Work -- where most of you spend one-third of your adult lives -- is one such arena.

"One of the main ways in which people seek meaning in life is through their work -- through being productive and feeling productive," Maddux explained. And he noted that the type of job you have may not be as important as your attitude toward that job.

"There was a study done several years ago where they looked at the job satisfaction of people who worked in hospitals -- everyone from the people who scrubbed the bathrooms, the cafeteria workers, the nurses, all the way up to physicians and hospital administrators," he said. "Satisfaction with their job had nothing to do with what kind of a job they had, but it did have to do with how much they saw their job contributing, in important ways, to the overall goal of the hospital."

Studies have also shown that job satisfaction can help boost physical health, perhaps by reducing stress. But loving what you do can also create that state of "flow" that psychologists believe is important to mental health. Even more than leisure-time pursuits, "work helps put people into that flow state, where they are no longer focusing on themselves but the task at hand," Maddux said.

Then there are relationships, and the emotional ups and downs they bring. For most people, interacting with others enhances well-being, Maddux said.

"The research shows that people who are extroverted and people-oriented tend to be happier than people who are introverted and more socially isolated," he said. That's especially true for long-term, intimate relationships such as marriage, which has been shown in study after study to enhance both mental and physical well-being.

"Remember, when you're married, you have someone monitoring your health and your behaviors, helping you make the kinds of changes that you need to maintain your health," Maddux said.

But there's hope for single Americans, too, he added: "What people tend to get from happy marriages is companionship, social support, emotional support -- all of which people are capable of getting from other relationships, too."

For many Americans, the relationship that sustains them the most is a religious or spiritual one.

"All the research shows that, for the most part, people who are religious in the conventional way tend to be happier, more altruistic and physically healthier," Maddux said. The reasons for that aren't clear, he said, adding, "It may be that they simply take better care of themselves."

The same phenomenon may hold true for people who don't necessarily believe in God, per se, but follow a spiritual code such as Buddhism, he added.

Other studies have also shown that stimulating activities -- everything from crossword puzzles to travel to sports -- enhance brainpower and stave off age-related mental decline.

Exercise, especially, "works better than some drugs" at beating depression, Maddux said. Organized sports can also help people achieve that healthy "flow state" while engaging in stimulating socialization.

All of these activities, and more, can work together to create a mental and physical equilibrium that encourages all-around health, Maddux said.

However, the exact recipe will probably be different for everyone.

"What is a 'balanced' life for one person isn't necessarily a balanced life for someone else," Maddux stressed. "The key is not assuming that the way other people achieve happiness in life is the way you have to achieve it."

More information

For more on the mind-body connection, head to the Franklin Institute.

SOURCE: James Maddux, Ph.D., professor, psychology, and director, clinical training, department of psychology, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.
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