There's an undeniable link between our diet, exercise habits, and mental health. The foods we put into our bodies have a direct effect on our mood and outlook. Likewise, physical activity provides a boost to our mental wellbeing.
While diet and exercise cannot cure clinical depression or anxiety on their own, making positive lifestyle changes in these areas can be a powerful part of an overall treatment plan.
A couple of years ago, I worked alongside experts from the world of sports science, behavioural psychology, and nutrition. The study, now published, was based around using a digital employee wellbeing platform that I designed, and how the use of the platform could have the affect of promoting healthy lifestyle choices, but ones that lasted.
We had a couple of cohorts that worked from home and worked from an office, mainly middle aged women who didn't exercise, and didn't particularly eat well either. Studies like this are a little one dimensional to the layman, but the devil is interviewee detail as they say.....
“They were really easy, from the perspective of a person that hasn't exercised since actually being born. I don't like getting tired, and I don't like my muscles sore. I'm very much a couch person. So for me, exercises that Instagram models put out always make me feel worse about myself because I'm like, I could never do it. But then I watched the videos and they look like actually something that I could physically do.”
“I think it did make a big difference to have two minutes of exercise. I think the thing that makes a big difference is having something that reminded you every day that you had to do it. It gave a little bit of accountability. I do think it changed my working day and it also made sure I eating a big meal at set times and pairing that with exercise. It did mean I was more alert and more energised.”
We had around 40 people interview after the study, the big takeaway is that if you give people small tasks to do, especially ones that they would naturally baulk at, (exercise and diet) and make them fun, with a gentle nudge, then they will actually look forward to the nudge and task.
All felt uplifted by their own achievement, however small, a little mental health boost as it were, anyway, let's look at some way we can recreate this study for ourselves.
Brain Foods for a Sunnier Disposition
Certain nutrients directly impact the production of key neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that regulate our mood. Loading up on foods rich in the following compounds can give those feel-good chemicals a boost:
- Omega-3 fatty acids from fish, nuts and seeds
- Amino acid tryptophan from poultry, eggs, oats, cheese
- Vitamin B from whole grains, yeast, meat and dairy
- Vitamin D from fatty fish, fortified foods and sunlight
- Magnesium from leafy greens, nuts and whole grains
- Zinc, iron and selenium from meats, nuts and legumes
On the flip side, limiting sugar, refined carbs, and processed foods can prevent spikes and crashes in energy and mood.
Quick Exercises for a Mood Lift
Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins - chemicals that enhance mood and reduce stress. Just a few minutes of exercise per day can provide these benefits. Easy ways to fit in mini mood-boosting workouts include:
- Taking a short walk outside, especially in nature
- Doing bodyweight squats or lunges
- Jumping rope for 5-10 minutes
- Doing a YouTube yoga flow video
- Taking the stairs instead of the elevator or lift
- Raise your legs and hold them for as a long as you can
Starting small (2 mins) with quick bursts of heart-pumping activity is an easy habit to build.
Fuelling our bodies through proper nutrition and regular exercise is a research-backed way to enhance mental health. While not a cure-all, conscious eating and brief workouts create a foundation of wellbeing critical for a sunny, resilient state of mind.