The crucial role of a nutritious diet and regular exercise on mental health

We all know that a nutritious diet and regular exercise have an enormous impact on our overall health. “Eat a balanced meal and move your body!” is a mantra that’s constantly thrown in our faces, on social media, in advertisements and – closer to home – via the people that care about us.

Health experts tell us if we exercise several times a week and maintain a balanced diet, we’ll be thankful in the future that we “stuck to our guns.” We all want to move towards our advanced years with our bodies in great condition.

Nutrition and exercise affect more than your physical health

But it’s easy to forget how crucial a role diet and exercise play in our lives in terms of our mental health. There are several changes we can make in our lives that will make a huge difference to our mental wellbeing. It’s the reason we put together the Peerhear 10 Principles for maintaining good mental health. And it all begins with eating a healthy, balanced diet and keeping up with a moderate exercise regime.

“Tim” has battled depression for 15 years and says he went through a stage where he felt he was making life worse for himself by eating too much junk (sugary and fried food) and doing very little exercise.

He decided to confide in his peer counsellor that he had hopes gradually reducing his anti-depressants. This person advised him to approach his GP with a plan for improving his diet and exercise as a strategy for reducing his medication. Together they came up with a program. And now he says he has his peer counsellor to thank for the improvements to his well-being.

“My peer counsellor spoke to me at length about diet and exercise. It was the first time someone has actually asked me about my lifestyle instead of just listening to me talk about depression and how I’m feeling,” Tim says.

“He told me that my mental health will improve if I start eating less processed food, cut down on alcohol, and introduce more fruit and vegetables into my diet. At the time, the only exercise I was doing was going for a walk with my dog, but wasn’t doing anything that really felt like I was exercising.”

Tim was also advised to see a nutritionist who put him on a diet – but he maintains it didn’t “feel like a diet”.

“I was stuck in so many bad habits. But I listened to the nutritionist who helped me change my life. It was more of a meal plan that took me back to basics. It was about eating sensibly and making sure that whatever food I ate actually had some nutritional value. The impact was huge and it didn’t take long before I started to feel much better and less depressed, so exercise and eating better was a huge factor,” Tim says.

Many people suffering from mental illness say they’re stuck in a cycle where they feel low, so they do less. Then, as they remain inactive, they feel even worse.

“When it came to exercise, I started cycling for around half an hour a day, and then taking myself for a ‘power walk’. I also bought myself some weights and I started to feel good about my body. I could really feel the benefits for my mental health and started to wish I’d made these changes many years ago,” Tim says.

Move your body. Exercise triggers a positive brain response

Studies show that exercise triggers dopamine production in the brain. Dopamine is the chemical that is in charge of feelings of happiness and joy. (If only we could bottle it and take it every time we’re having “a moment!)

A study published in “Science Daily” claims dopamine is now seen as a core neurotransmitter to address symptoms such as the lack of energy that occurs in diseases such as depression.

Another study, published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal, revealed that exercising for 45 minutes three to five times a week had the biggest impact on your health. It’s also proven that exercise improves stress levels; stress causes the brain to atrophy, which means your memory is impacted and you’ll become forgetful.

But if you exercise and raise your heart rate, you will boost the production of neurohormones which improves cognitive function and helps to lift your mood. It sounds simple and it really is – just keep moving your body!

Eating well for mental health

Statistics show around two thirds of people who claim to have no mental health problems say they eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day.

This compares to people who eat fewer healthy foods, and eat more processed or “junk food” who report higher levels of mental health issues. A balanced diet ideally includes fruit, vegetables, proteins, calcium and carbohydrates.

According to a study by Harvard University, following a “traditional” diet, such as the Mediterranean diet and the Japanese diet, has found the risk of depression is 25 per cent to 35 per cent lower when compared to a typical “Western” diet.

The major difference between the diets is traditional diets are high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and fish and seafood, and only contain a moderate amount of lean meats and dairy. While the Western diet contains more sugar and processed food.

Two powerful principles for good mental health

The biggest takeaway from this information is really quite simple – exercise every day in whichever way you like to move your body; running, power-walking, cycling or swimming. And, when it comes to food, think about everything before you take the first bite – ask yourself, “Is there any nutritional value in what I’m about to eat?” If the answer is yes, then you can tell yourself you’re taking the best steps possible towards improving your mental health, as well as your overall health.

If, like Tim, you think you could benefit from someone to point you in the right direction when you’re feeling lost, why not book a chat with a Peerhear peer support worker, the first session is totally free.

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