According to the World Health Organization, nearly 300 million people suffer from depression each year, 275 million people worldwide suffer from an anxiety disorder, and the rest of the population reports record stress levels, especially in developed countries.
These are sobering statistics. Fortunately, in some cases these conditions are highly treatable. Unfortunately, many people treat them with prescription medications. While these drugs certainly help countless people live better lives, they often come with a long list of troublesome side effects that can impact quality of life after the actual disorder has been treated.
You probably already know that physical fitness can have a major impact on your state of mind, but did you know that keeping in good physical shape can often not only help treat these illnesses, but also help prevent them entirely?
That’s right: fitness is not just about physical health. Keeping in good emotional and mental shape is much the same as keeping in good physical shape; regular exercise, proper diet, plus a few simple activities you can do daily, go a long way to keeping your mind fit, your emotions balanced, and your stress levels down. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or just a big dose of everyday stress, you might just be able to tackle that at the same time.
First, we’ll dive into how exercise and nutrition impact your mental health, and then we’ll explore some tips, tricks, and hacks that can keep your brain functioning at the top of its game. This is your blueprint to a better life, and you can get started today.
Exercise has both powerful short-term mood-boosting effects and long-term mental health benefits, including reduced stress and greater feelings of well-being. There can also be a sense of accomplishment and pride in setting and completing goals, and people that are in good physical shape often have a greater sense of confidence.
Apart from just generally being good for mental wellbeing, there’s significant evidence that exercise is highly effective as part of a treatment plan for clinical depression and anxiety disorders. Exercise releases powerful chemicals in the brain that elevate mood and provide a sense of wellbeing. In fact, studies indicate that exercise may be as effective as medication in treating mild to moderate depression—without the side effects that can come with antidepressants. Exercise also represents a healthy and positive coping mechanism for dealing with stress and other issues that may threaten your mental wellbeing.
Regular exercise is especially interesting as a method for treating and even preventing anxiety. Some experts hypothesize that since anxiety is generally related to the fight-or-flight response, and exercise can produce many of those same reactions and sensations—elevated heart rate, higher body temperature, sweating, etc.—getting used to those reactions through exercise can reduce the impact they have during an anxiety attack.
The exercise doesn’t have to be structured or even strenuous: something as simple as regular walks can have a beneficial effect. As little as 15 minutes at a time may be beneficial, although the most common recommendation is 30 minutes 3 to 5 times a week. Obviously, though, a structured program will be better for achieving other goals long-term, and the simple satisfaction of creating a plan and sticking to it can have mental health benefits of its own! A good wellness coach can recommend an exercise plan that suits you best.
It’s pretty common knowledge that the foods we eat have a major impact on the way we feel physically, and when you feel good physically, you’re more likely to feel good mentally. So, in that light, we can surmise that your diet can also have a direct impact on your mental wellbeing.
Studies have shown that the risk of depression is up to 35% lower in populations that eat “traditional” diets, like the Mediterranean. These diets are high in fruits, vegetables, seafood, and unprocessed grain, and low in lean meat and dairy. They also tend to contain little to no processed foods at all.
The way food interacts with your brain is actually fascinating. You’ve probably heard of the importance of the neurotransmitter serotonin in regulating mood, but did you know the vast majority of serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract? There’s mounting evidence that there is a direct relationship between the nutrients going into your stomach and the levels of critical neurotransmitters being produced in your brain.
For some people, the impact of a change in diet can be felt almost immediately. Eating well can make you feel more alert, relaxed, and happy, while eating poorly can leave you feeling run-down, tired, and drained of energy. If you’ve ever had a less-than-nutritious lunch and then crashed in the afternoon, you know exactly what I mean. For others, the effects will be felt more slowly, as your body builds up the essential vitamins and nutrients it needs to function properly. Either way, there’s no question that a good diet is vital to both physical and mental wellbeing.
So, what are good foods to eat? Well, generally speaking, anything that would be good for you from a physical fitness standpoint is also going to be good from a mental fitness standpoint, but there are some specific things to look out for. Avoid processed foods and foods high in sugar. Instead, aim for fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. Some foods that are particularly good for the brain include eggs, almonds, fish, blueberries, avocados, and broccoli. These are packed with nutrients that help keep you feeling great both mentally and physically.
Mental health hacks
What else can we do to keep ourselves in good emotional balance?
Gratitude isn’t just an emotion. It’s an action and a practice that can have far-reaching consequences in your life. Studies show that people who make a deliberate effort to cultivate an attitude of gratitude consider themselves to be happier and more content than those that don’t. Additionally, showing gratitude to others can spread some of that cheer around.
Some ways to cultivate and practice gratitude are:
- Keep a gratitude journal. Each evening make it a habit to write down 5 or 10 things you’re grateful for. This helps keep your mind focused on the positive things in your life, and forcing yourself to find at least 5 things, even on bad days, helps keep perspective.
- Go out of your way to thank someone. If you can’t do it in person, write a note!
- Do some volunteer work. This is a great way to express gratitude and give back to your community, both of which are fantastic for your mental wellbeing.
A regular regimen of vitamins and supplements can help keep you on top of your game both physically and mentally. Before we get started, keep in mind that none of these supplements are substitutes for proper mental health care. If you’re suffering from mental illness, or think you might be, seek a doctor’s opinion.
- 5-HTP: 5-HTP is a chemical the body produces from tryptophan. It can help raise the natural serotonin levels in your brain, which may have a positive effect on your mood. You can get extra tryptophan by eating certain foods, like turkey, chicken, potatoes, and sunflower seeds. You can also boost 5-HTP directly with supplements.
- SAMe: SAMe helps produce serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine in the brain. Studies have shown that people taking SAMe supplements report fewer symptoms of depression than those taking placebos.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are very important for neurological growth and functioning, however, the body doesn’t make them on its own. Instead, we get them from food. Foods high in Omega-3s include fish (especially salmon), flax and chia seeds, nuts, and soybeans. If you can’t eat these foods (or just don’t like them), you can also buy Omega-3 supplements over-the-counter, usually in the form of fish oil.
- Vitamin B: Vitamin B is important for mood and brain function, and low levels of Vitamin B have been linked with depression. Vitamin B is also associated with energy levels: if you’re feeling tired all the time, you could have a deficiency here. You can usually get all the B vitamins you need from a standard multivitamin.
Keeping a journal is a tried-and-true method for maintaining emotional balance and keeping yourself in good shape mentally. It’s also been shown to impact physical wellbeing too: some studies have shown that patients suffering with chronic conditions like asthma or autoimmune disorders reported greater quality of life and reduced symptoms after journaling regularly. Journaling can be as structured or freeform as you like—the important thing is that you do it, and do it consistently.
Finally, meditation can be an excellent way to keep your emotional balance, combat anxiety and depression, and just generally feel happier and more at peace. There are numerous different types of meditation, but the one we want to focus on here is a practice known as “mindfulness meditation.” Mindfulness meditation is a type of meditation that is aimed at keeping your focus and attention in the present moment, and it’s especially powerful for combating anxiety and stress.
Not sure where to start? Try this:
- Find a quiet spot where you can sit uninterrupted for 10 to 20 minutes.
- Sit up straight, with your shoulders relaxed and feet flat on the floor.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Focus on the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe.
- Continue to focus on your breath, and notice how your mind begins to wander. Notice these thoughts, but try not to make any judgements about them. Just acknowledge them and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
- When your time is up, slowly open your eyes and notice the room and your surroundings. Don’t get frustrated if you have a hard time staying focused—remember, it’s not about never letting your mind wander, it’s about bringing it back when it does!
- Repeat for 10-20 minutes once or twice a day (more is better!). You can start to feel the effects in as little as a few weeks.
Life is stressful. There’s no getting around that, but by following some simple health and wellness practices, you can fight back. Not only can you live a longer, happier, more relaxed, more fulfilling life, but you can combat the rising tide of anxiety and depression in today’s world. Better yet, it couldn’t be any simpler! All of these tips can be implemented in your life today, and many of them take no time at all. Put them into practice and I guarantee you’ll see an improvement in your outlook and state of mind.
Grant is a fitness coach and the founder of Team G-Fit.