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How Healthy Eating and Exercise Improve Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

Mental health disorders are psychological in nature, but research is continually showing how linked the brain is to the body. Given that the brain is an organ within the body, it should come as no surprise that any activity that supports the body’s health will also support the brain’s health. For this reason, it is critical to recognize that talk therapy, while it is often extremely important, is not the only solution to mental illness. No one should overlook the importance of regular exercise, healthy diets, and quality sleep schedules. Engaging in these basic everyday healthy habits can make it far easier to recover from substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, and even severe depression.

How Does Eating Healthy Foods Improve Mental Health?

Having a healthy diet has an enormous impact on how the body and the brain function. However, people looking to change their approach to eating should understand that it isn’t simply a matter of eating specific foods. The amount of food a person eats matters, since being at a healthy weight can improve mental health. Moreover, the way different foods relate to each other can also make a difference. Nutritionists, therapists, and even staff members at sober living homes can help young people develop healthier eating habits and plan out meals.

The benefits of proper diet for mental health:

Blood Sugar Control

It is common for people who are feeling cranky or sad to attribute their mood to “low blood sugar.” That’s not just a turn of phrase – blood sugar problems really do impact mood. Blood sugar can rise and dip throughout the day, especially when a person regularly eats a lot of sugar or simple carbohydrates. These fluctuations can cause feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, and irritation. By eating a diet that consists of complex carbohydrates and plenty of fiber, these negative moods may decrease in intensity.

Improved Gut Function

Antidepressants like SSRIs improve mood by causing the brain to retain a higher quantity of a neurotransmitter known as serotonin. This brain chemical improves mood and fights depression. However, the brain isn’t the only source of serotonin. In fact, the gastrointestinal tract actually produces serotonin as well. Unfortunately, the gut’s ability to produce serotonin is limited when a person regularly eats unhealthy junk food that is high in sugar and fat. Refined and processed foods are the worst culprits, impairing a person’s ability to absorb nutrients and blocking the neural pathways between the brain and gut.

Healthier Brains in General

Refined sugars and other chemicals in junk food offer low quality sources of energy for the brain. The brain is one of the body’s biggest consumers of energy, so it should come as no surprise that getting high quality fuel is important. Bad diets can worsen the symptoms of many mood disorders, such as depression – partly because these bad diets increase inflammation in the body and brain. By eating more healthily, an individual can decrease their response to stress and become better at managing feelings of depression and anxiety.

How Does Exercise Improve Mental Health?

Engaging in regular exercise has a wide range of benefits. Individuals who regularly do sports or go to the gym tend to sleep better, feel more energized, control their weight more easily, and have healthier cardiovascular systems. Moreover, regular exercise has an enormous impact on mental health conditions. The conditions that exercise treats include depression, anxiety, ADHD, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and many others. This means that no matter what you are going through, you can’t go wrong by adding additional exercise to your day – no matter how basic. Even just getting a few extra steps of walking in each day can have a profound impact on how you respond to stress triggers.

The many benefits of exercise for mental health include:

Reduces Anxious Thinking

People who play sports generally do so because it makes them feel good. There is a science behind this. When people exercise, they actually are literally fighting tension and stress in the brain and body. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain known as endorphins. Endorphins impact how people feel – increasing feelings of euphoria and calmness. Moreover, exercise is often a social activity. By engaging in sports or going to the gym with other people, individuals can learn to manage their social anxiety. They also naturally improve their connections with other people and build strong friendships. These sources of social support also reduce feelings of anxiety and insecurity.

Makes You More Present

Mental illnesses tend to take people out of the present moment. Anxiety can cause a person to stress out about the future and its many possible outcomes. Depression can cause a person to dwell on negative past events or the hopelessness of the future. Post-traumatic stress disorder also leads a person to constantly re-experience their past trauma. Learning to concentrate on the here and now is a crucial component of getting healthy. When an individual is engaged in exercise or sports, they have no choice but to be mindful of the present. Exercise makes a person more perceptive of their tactile sensations, the way they’re breathing, and even whether objects are in relation to their bodies. Doing exercise outdoors can make the activity even more grounding, promoting mindfulness just as well as meditation.

Helps Fight Depression

The endorphins that exercise releases in the brain can also reduce the symptoms of depression. These pleasure-inducing chemicals can make it easier to feel calm, connected, and motivated. Even if depression remains, simply setting aside a period of time each day to do something physical and pleasurable has an enormous impact. Exercise is a period of time during which it is difficult to worry or dwell on abstract life problems.

A large body of research shows that people who engage in exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, are less likely to suffer from severe depressive symptoms. Moreover, regular exercise reduces the mortality rate of depression. Suicidal thoughts become less frequent and individuals with an exercise practice are far less likely to act on them.

When using exercise for depression, a small increase can make a huge difference. Simply adding a half hour of exercise three to five days a week can offer great results. For those who are new to exercise, the activity doesn’t even need to be intense. Walks around the neighborhood get the heart beating and also help people connect to their communities.

Getting Healthy in a Men’s Sober Living

Structured sober living in Los Angeles, CA like Design for Recovery aim to provide young men with the structure and support they need to maintain their sobriety and live fulfilling lives. Our staff members recognize that quitting drugs and alcohol is generally only the beginning of a totally new approach to living. It is important for individuals who are beginning their new journeys to develop entirely different habits. When people are regularly abusing drugs and alcohol, they are likely eating unhealthily, sleeping poorly, and definitely not treating their bodies to regular exercise or wholesome sports. At Design for Recovery, we encourage our residents to connect with each other via exercise, learn to cook healthy and delicious meals, and take care of both their brains and bodies. In the process, they learn to find the sources of happiness within themselves – rather than in recreational drugs or alcohol.

If you are ready to get healthy, reach out to us at Design for Recovery today.

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Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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