Physical Labor and Mental Health

Melvin Tillman, Melvin Tillman, MA

Posted by: Melvin Tillman
Melvin Tillman, MA

When discussing the ways in which to improve mental health, we tend to focus on the abstract.  We explore family influences, maladaptive thinking, reoccurring themes, and several other intangible concepts.  Though this focus on the abstract is imperative, we can sometimes ignore the concrete counterpart.  Therefore, what is physical labor, and how does it affect mental health?


Defining Physical Labor


            At its core, physical labor is simply the tangible stress placed on our bodies.  Physical labor occurs every day and comes in numerous forms.  Though working out is perhaps the clearest display of physical labor, carpentry, construction, waitressing, nursing, firefighting, coalmining, doing chores around the house, and riding a bicycle to work, are all examples of physical labor. 

            Another way in which to define physical labor is through its impact on the body.  In other words, physical labor leaves your body feeling exhausted, tired, and perhaps sore.  For example, you wouldn’t say that taking a bath is physical labor; it’s relaxing and restorative.  However, scrubbing the tub to make it clean enough for a bath would be physical labor.  After reading all of this, one might think that physical labor is inherently bad.  Let’s explore that.


Is Physical Labor Inherently Bad?


            Like anger, physical labor is not inherently problematic.  It’s simply a matter of context and intensity.  If your car breaks down while driving to work, it makes sense to be angry.  Cursing would be understandable, but not cursing out the person towing your car.  The same applies to physical labor.  Physical labor helps us keep our body in shape, enables us to build homes, hunt and farm for food as well as master our environment.  Physical labor releases endorphins, which helps us feel better.  An extra shot of endorphins feels like a natural high.


Physical Labor and Mental Health


            As mentioned earlier, physical labor is strongly connected with our mental health.  Too little physical labor and we become sickly and lethargic, and consequently, bored, languid, and even depressed.  Too much physical labor (e.g. working 12-hour shifts, exercising excessively) isn’t very healthy either. Too much leaves us ragged, exhausted, irritable, wasted, overwhelmed and sets us up for future failure. Therefore, it’s crucial to incorporate a balanced amount of physical labor in your life. 


Final Thoughts


            Physical labor is the tangible activities that add some degree of stress to our bodies.  Physical labor varies within our day-to-day activities, and is fundamentally essential.  With this knowledge, the goal isn’t to avoid physical labor all together, but to rather strike a healthy balance of physical labor versus rest within our life.  Remember, balance is the key to physical and mental health.  Everything in moderation.