Taking Care of Your Mental Health with Fitness and Nutrition
Our mental health is one of the most important things we need to take care of, especially in times like these where there is so much drastic change as we prepare for a “new normal”. Whether you’re confined at home or on the front lines, there are new stressors showing up in various aspects of our lives.
We have to navigate a new way of life, and it is completely ok to not be doing it perfectly. However, this task becomes even more challenging if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. Our mental health can really take a hit during this time, but putting a little extra focus on your fitness and nutrition can make a huge difference in how you’re feeling during quarantine.
When it comes to mental health, fitness and nutrition are usually the last things we think about. People tend to associate these with goals such as weight loss, but below are a few of the ways fitness and nutrition can directly improve mood, reduce stress, and keep you feeling more motivated and accomplished!
How Fitness and Nutrition Improve Mental Health
1. Improves Cognitive Function
Working out naturally increases your blood flow. This brings more oxygen to the areas of your brain that affect mood, stress, and your motivation!
Your brain also needs fuel to function properly. If you’re feeding it refined sugars and processed food, you’re not allowing it to work at its best. The better fuel you give your body, the better you’ll function. So, a balanced diet will ensure you have the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants your brain needs to function at its best.
2. Reduces Stress
When we’re stressed, a lot of us hold tension in our jaw, our shoulders, and our back. Working out helps you warm up and loosen these tight muscles, especially if you take the time to stretch after!
Exercise and healthy eating can also be a chance to simply get away from the things in life that are stressing you out. That time exercising or cooking can allow for a healthy distraction, and give you time to put yourself first. I also love doing workouts with friends over Face Time! It’s my way to escape, see my friends, and make workouts more fun!
3. Improves Mood
It’s been proven that exercise reduces depression and anxiety. While these feelings may be more common these days, keeping your body moving is a helpful way to improve your mood and start feeling better! Specifically, exercising increases endorphin and serotonin levels. These are chemicals in the brain that help keep you energized and make you feel good. On top of that, serotonin, aka the “happy chemical”, is mostly released in the gut, so it’s important to keep your gut healthy with good bacteria from healthy foods to keep these levels high.
While eating healthy foods can help boost your mood, it also helps you avoid the bad stuff. Diets high in refined sugar can impair brain function, and you can become more prone to mood disorders. The more refined sugars and simple carbohydrates you eat, the more free radicals (or oxidants) there are in the body. In large amounts, these free radicals can be damaging to your cells and may even negatively affect mood. Antioxidants can reduce this damage, so it’s important to get plenty in your diet. Not surprisingly, many antioxidants can be found in fruits and vegetables!
4. Improves Sleep
Sleep is incredibly important for your cognitive health, and getting your body moving every day, and avoiding refined sugar and saturated fats can help you fall asleep faster at night and improve the quality of your sleep. I am all for indulging on some deep dish pizza and ice cream, but I personally feel so tired the next day. I try to avoid this feeling during the week if possible!
Not only is quality sleep good for your brain, but it also aids in positive decision making. It becomes more difficult to make decisions to exercise and eat healthy while tired, and this can allow a vicious cycle to start. Avoid this by moving your body, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep each night!
5. More Energy
Exercising gives you natural energy throughout the day. So much so, that you should actually avoid working out a few hours before bed to ensure you can fall asleep! Whether you prefer to workout in the morning to get your day started, or workout in the afternoon for that mid-day refresher, it’s much better than reaching for soda or a candy bar for that little pick-me-up.
Nutritionally, you get energy from the food you eat. So, the quality of your energy comes from the quality of your food! Eating refined sugars spike your blood sugar, and then cause a “sugar crash” later on. To avoid this, eating foods with fiber and complex carbohydrates will help stabilize your blood sugar and keep your energy up. On top of this, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water to help digest these healthy foods!
The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes of activity a week. This can be as simple as getting outside with your kids, walking a dog (or by yourself!), doing some yoga or stretching, or taking an online class from your favorite gym. It doesn’t have to be a high intensity workout if you don’t want it to be. Just do something you enjoy, that makes you proud, and gets your body moving - that’s all you need to help boost your mental health!
You don’t need a crazy fad diet to receive all of these benefits, improving your nutrition can be pretty simple! It’s not necessary to count calories or cut a bunch of stuff from your diet. Instead, think about what you can add: having protein, healthy fats, and fruits and vegetables at every meal is an easy way to improve your nutrition. Maybe add a salad with dinner, make a smoothie in the morning, or grab some fruit or veggies as a snack. These are all easy ways to start making great choices and get extra nutrients and vitamins to support your mental health!