Exercise, diet and mindfulness for a healthy mind
We often associate lifestyle changes with physical health such as weight loss, but these aspects of self-care are vital and so beneficial for a healthy brain. You’ll notice that these three components form the basis of our 4-week PA2health program.
Even for those who don't experience mental health issues or have a mental health condition, you may still be looking for ways to improve your mood, reduce stress, and manage your day-to-day mental health. It can be empowering to make positive life changes. While time restrictions and financial limitations may affect some people's ability to make such changes, we all have the ability to make small meaningful shifts in our behaviour.
When it comes to your mental fitness, exercise doesn't have a formula. Lifestyle changes big or small can result in significant benefits to your mental health.
Benefits of exercise on mental health include:
Improves memory, focus and thinking skills
Improves sleep so you feel more energised the next day
Reduces stress and anxiety
Prevents against depression
Builds coping strategies and resilience
Gives you a sense of accomplishment
Offers opportunities for social connection
What the research says is that any kind of movement can add up to keep depression or even just low mood at bay. It doesn’t say you have to run a marathon, do hours of weights, or be a CrossFit master just to see benefits of improved mood. If you do love a good, hearty gym workout, keep going. But if you don't, just getting off the couch and moving for a little while can help. Ideally, to prevent depression you should do at least 15 minutes a day of higher-intensity exercises, such as running, or at least an hour of lower-intensity exercise, such as walking or housework. Intentionally moving your body in more gentle ways throughout the day — like walking, stretching or taking the stairs — can still add up in good ways for your mood.
As well as boosting mood, researchers have reasoned that regular workouts might help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience those fight-or-flight sensations. After all, the body produces many of the same physical reactions — heavy perspiration, increased heart rate — in response to exercise. This theory has been tested with people with heightened sensitivity to anxiety. Subjects who participated in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with those who didn’t. Exercise in many ways is like exposure treatment. People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.
It's unclear exactly how moving your muscles can have such a significant effect on mental health. There are many good, open questions about which mechanisms contribute the most to changes in mood when we exercise. Some researchers suspect exercise improves mood by increasing serotonin (the neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants) or something called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which supports the growth of neurons). Another theory suggests exercise helps by normalising sleep, which is known to have protective effects on the brain.
2. Diet The human microbiome, or gut environment, is a community of different bacteria that has co-evolved with humans to be beneficial to both a person and the bacteria. Researchers agree that a person’s unique microbiome is created within the first 1,000 days of life, but there are things you can do to alter your gut environment throughout your life. What we eat, especially foods that contain chemical additives and ultra-processed foods affects our gut environment and increases our risk of diseases. Ultra-processed foods contain substances extracted from food, added from food constituents, or made in a laboratory (think flavour enhancers, food colourings).
Researchers recommend altering nutrition first (in other words, what we eat) before trying gut modifying-therapies (probiotics, prebiotics) to improve how we feel. They suggest eating whole foods and avoiding processed and ultra-processed foods that we know cause inflammation and disease. When we consider the connection between the brain and the gut, it’s important to know that 90% of serotonin receptors are located in the gut. In the field of nutritional psychiatry, we help patients understand how gut health and diet can positively or negatively affect their mood.
A recent study suggests that eating a healthy, balanced diet such as the Mediterranean diet and avoiding inflammation-producing foods may be protective against depression. Suggestions for a healthier gut and improved mood include:
Eat whole foods and avoid packaged or processed foods
Instead of vegetable or fruit juice, consider increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables. Frozen fruits without added sugars/additives are a good choice too
Eat enough fibre and include whole grains and legumes in your diet
Include probiotic-rich foods such as plain yoghurt without added sugars
Adding fermented foods such as kefir (unsweetened), sauerkraut, or kimchi can be helpful to maintain a healthy gut
Eat a balance of seafood and lean poultry.
3. Mindfulness Mindfulness can not only improve our sleep but has also been shown to improve our awareness of our emotions, boost attention and concentration, and improve our relationships. Mindfulness is about being aware of what is happening in the present on a moment by moment basis, while not making judgements about whether we like or don’t like what we find in our mind.
We all have the capacity to be mindful. It simply involves cultivating our ability to pay attention to the present moment and allows us to disengage from mental “clutter” and to have a clear mind. It makes it possible for us to respond rather than react to situations, thus improving our decision- making and potential for physical and mental relaxation. Mindfulness is a key factor in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and can assist in our ability to make smart choices with regards to exercise and nutrition.