Commentary

Mind and Body Health Two Sides of the Same Wellness Coin

By Alex Russell

A person’s physical and mental health are often thought of as being two separate realms of human wellness, but in actuality the two are inextricably linked. Maintaining both at the same time may seem like a challenge, especially in an ever-demanding and fast-paced world, but there are small steps everyone can take to support both their physical self and their emotional well-being.


Speaking with a variety of health care providers in the Falls Church area, from physical therapists to yoga practitioners, it becomes apparent how both the mind and body are sometimes in need of nurture and support for a person to feel all-around better and in control — and this self-care itself can begin in small, sometimes unexpected ways.


Britta Gilbert, a Board Certified Orthopedic Physical Therapist with Focus Physical Therapy and Wellness explained that “it doesn’t have to be super specific as far as movement, but just move: get up, move around, do some stretches.” When a person gets their joints and muscles moving, “it’s great for our endorphins.”


Gilbert also underscored the significance of being outdoors, as there is a “huge healing benefit to human beings just being outside, just sitting outside in the sun can be really helpful.”


René Willems, owner and operator of Rembrandt Assisted Living is a Residential Assisted Living Specialist with over 30 years’ worth of experience in physical therapy. He has seen first-hand the impact of physical injury on an individual’s general sense of self.


“What is very common to see, when people come to you with an injury — something that is big enough to stop their daily, weekly routine — slowly, they get anxious about getting back. It’s very easy for anxiety to turn into depression.”


Helping a patient through the healing process, however, means establishing a consistent pace and setting realistic goals. “Break it down in little steps. For example, before you start jogging, you have to achieve a whole range of motion, smaller, achievable goals make recovery more feasible.” And one’s mentality plays a big role throughout.


Willems says that patients often need to “shift their mindset,” as “unrealistic goals” can induce a person to give up early on in their recovery process.


Aside from a manageable path forward, the social aspect is important, too. Doing something together, — for example, an early morning walk — makes it easier to get up at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. and getting the planned activity accomplished. Being with others in a group provides motivation for all and at its core, being with others even for an hour fulfills a person’s natural need for communication, socializing, and the exchange and flow of energy.


Essentially, Willems concludes that mental and physical well-being are at the same level of importance. Once “everything settles in” and recovery is underway, a person begins to regain control of their life, returning to one’s usual activities.


Amanda Sovik-Johnston, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Virginia Family Therapy ties in physical exercise together with emotional and mental health by outlining how improving one’s “exercise, nutrition, and sleep is the number one strategy towards helping” a person who struggles with depression or anxiety.


“Our bodies are designed to exercise regularly, eat nutritiously every three – four hours and get around eight hours of sleep. The challenge is prioritizing our physical needs when there are so many other demands for our attention or expectations for how we should be living our lives.” She acknowledges the everyday rush of work and school schedules, as well as the effect that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on everyone, including families.


“It is nearly impossible to get an hour of exercise every day when our kids are at home during a pandemic or we have to work a nine-hour workday. It is almost impossible for our kids to eat when their bodies are hungry when they are operating on a school schedule. The answer is to look for small improvements in sleep, nutrition and exercise where you can and that will pay you back emotionally.”


Sovik-Johnston underscores that small changes can have big results. “Fifteen minutes of hard exercise may be just enough to improve your attention, which will make you happier at work. An extra half hour of sleep may allow you to be more patient with your family, which will then improve your relationships all around.”


Dr. Gordon Theisz, of Family Medicine in Falls Church supports this with his own suggested regiment. “20 – 30 minutes a day or 40 minutes every other day of cardiovascular exercise,” like walking, running, jogging, cycling, or even swimming “is really important to improve physical and mental health. There is good evidence that this type of effort can prolong life and improve quality of life.”


Mindfulness — the state of being present and aware of one’s surroundings and inner needs — is just as key to mental and emotional health as counseling or physical exercise. It can provide a person with a sense of calm and even optimism, if practiced on a continuous basis.


Olivia Jeffers, a yoga instructor with over a decade of experience and owner of Karma Yoga, agrees that “mindfulness can often feel like a daunting task,” and so suggests taking it “ten percent” at a time. “A little bit goes a long way. Don’t underestimate the value of a small, consistent effort.” She adds that taking a quick “gap in your day to pause in the present” allows for a longer pause next time, thereby building up one’s inner capacity for mindfulness.


This methodology, stemming from Hinduism and Buddhism, is also well-suited to coping with stressful situations. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed by thoughts or feelings,” Jeffers suggests tuning into “your body senses by noticing five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.” This “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” approach helps a person regain a sense of control and feel more grounded in day-to-day life.


One unexpected tool for mental and emotional health turns out to be boredom. “A super advanced meditation technique is boredom. If you’re feeling up to the challenge…try being in flow with boredom.” For example, she says a person can try going on a “walk without any podcasts” or doing “the laundry without watching Netflix.” This in turn helps “declutter” one’s mind, too.


For those looking to try out some of these practices outside of the house, the City has a variety of local parks and trails perfect for jogs, walks, yoga, or even just some outdoor meditation under a tree.


Cavalier Trail Park (600 S Maple Ave, Falls Church), Cherry Hill Park (312 Park Ave, Falls Church), Howard E. Herman Stream Valley Park (601 W Broad St, Falls Church), and Berman Park (236 Irving St, Falls Church) are some great options for outdoor activity, with a friend or on your own.


For something more in line with physical fitness, Providence Rec Center (7525 Marc Dr, Falls Church) has a fitness room that includes treadmills, elliptical trainers, and bikes, as well as free weight equipment, a variety of strength training machines, and an indoor pool. The Falls Church City Community Center (the Kenneth R. Burnett Building at 223 Little Falls St, Falls Church) includes a full-size gymnasium with a basketball, volleyball, and shuffleboard court.


To learn more about the City’s parks, visit fallschurchva.gov/511/parks. To find out more about Providence Rec Center, visit fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/reccenter/providence. To learn more about the Falls Church Community Center, visit fallschurchva.gov/508/community-center.