For most of us, returning to campus and readjusting to the college student lifestyle mean major changes to the way we live. Already, I have heard students around me dreading the late nights spent studying, the stress, and the lack of time they have to spend on themselves. Lucky for us, Vanderbilt has (or at least aims to have) resources to help us mitigate these pressures–spend just a couple of hours looking around on campus, and the attempt to push mental health campaigns will be clearly posted on just about every bulletin board in sight, and for good reason. Mental health certainly is of utmost importance – in fact, why read this column on physical health when being of sound mind seems like it should take precedence? Why take a break and go for a run when you think you should get just as a nice of a break watching Netflix?
These seem like sound arguments at first. However, the fatal flaw in this argument lies in the fact that we assume, on this campus and as college students in general, that health can be subdivided (mental health, physical health, spiritual health, etc.) when in fact we are holistic versions of all the forms of health combined. For example, imagine a student with an upcoming exam. She knows she has to perform well, so she channels all of her efforts into her studies the night before the exam. She thinks she doesn’t have time to eat a full meal, so she snacks on candy and leftovers and drinks copious amounts of coffee to stay awake. She studies well into the night and the following morning until she finds herself seated in the lecture hall. All of the material was covered and if she were a machine, she probably would ace the exam. However, she’s not a machine. Despite all the time spent studying, her body is craving sleep and proper nutrition to regenerate, and extra stress hormones course through her as if she weren’t already stressed enough about the exam in front of her. Even if she manages to perform well, she will crash in the next couple of hours, waste time recuperating, and likely dread the next exam cycle before any new material is even covered. Sound familiar?
The connection between physical and mental health became incredibly clear to me just this past year. I have struggled with anxiety for some time now, and despite all the meditation/thought exercises I tried, nothing seemed to be helping. With little purpose in mind, I started going on short, easy runs every time I felt anxious as a way to clear my head. After a couple of days of this, I realized that time to clear my head wasn’t what was helping at all. The physical act of running, of getting my blood pumping faster and making some happy hormones, was helping. Similarly, fortifying my body with wholesome meals and adequate sleep (like the “midnight bedtime on weeknights, no exceptions” kind) helps to cut down on irritability that might be caused by nutritional deficiencies so that I can focus on what’s actually bothering me. Sure, mental health is of utmost importance (and sometimes that means staying out late and eating a whole pizza), but we cannot deny the inextricable ties between the mind and the body either. So, if you’re someone who doesn’t care about working out or doesn’t see the point of reading this column in such a mental health-focused campus, read this column. It might be more about mental health than you think.
My goal in writing these pieces is not to show you the fastest way to lose 10 pounds, get a six pack, or only eat kale for a week (in fact, my goal is to make everyone who reads these articles not think like that). I’m not a fitness guru or a personal trainer. I am someone who has come very far in the way I think about fitness and my body, and almost none of those changes have come from actually working out. They have come from a change in mindset. Through these articles, I hope to change your mindset too – to see health and fitness as something more than physical, to recognize negativity in the way you or the people around you talk about physical health, and to have the courage to speak out against it.