The science of why exercise and diet are the cornerstone of good mental health 6 years ago

The science of why exercise and diet are the cornerstone of good mental health

'Exercise is good for your health'.

This mantra is forever rammed down our throats on TV ads, billboards, by doctors and supplement companies and even your dear old mum. We all know it.


But often we all just think about the body benefits of being active and eating well - such as looking better on the beach or fitting into those old jeans.

Yet it's easy to forget how important fitness and diet are for your mental health and well-being.

While it's easy to think of 'body' and 'mind' as two separate things, your body needs a healthy mind to function well and vice versa.


National charity Mind say people with mental health issues are more likely to have a poor diet, smoke and drink alcohol and be overweight or obese.

But there are small changes we can all make that bring a big difference to our lives and our mental health...and it starts with moving more, eating better and trying new things.


How can exercise improve our mental health?


People talk about a vicious cycle: You feel low, tired or depressed, so you do less. As you become less active you feel worse - so you do even less - and the cycle continues.

But the opposite is also true. When you start to exercise, you feel more active and energised so you're motivated to do more.

The reason is that exercise - in whatever form - has a profound physical effect on the brain and the body.

Walking, running, jumping, playing, or whatever you do, triggers dopamine production in the brain - the chemical responsible for feelings of happiness and pleasure.


When you get active your body also produces endorphins - potent chemicals that can reduce your perceptions of pain, boost your natural immunity and actually relax you.

Endorphins are natural mood boosters that give us feelings of euphoria similar to opiates like morphine, which helps with things like depression, confidence, mood and self-esteem.


Exercise is proven to improve stress and anxiety. Stress in particular causes the brain to atrophy - so your memory gets worse and you forget things - but raising your heart rate boosts your neurohormones production.

These hormones directly improve cognitive function, mood and learning - so in effect, exercise makes you smarter.


Research has also shown that aerobic activity boosts energy and lowers fatigue -  and the average effects were even better than the effect of using stimulants or medications.

The best thing is that it's all natural.

Why is food so important for a healthy mind?

You forever hear people coming out with the old saying 'I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired'. But that's what a poor diet can do to you.

Our modern Western lifestyle of eating fatty foods, processed junk, additives and refined sugars is causing a global health crisis. But not just in physical terms of obesity and diseases like diabetes and cancer, but it's harming our mental health too.

There's another old saying - 'food is medicine'. And it's true. While a bad diet can cause serious disease and ill-health over the long term, a balanced diet rich in whole foods and natural ingredients can prevent and even treat disease.

Food gives us the nutrients to resist illness, to recover from stress and to give us energy to work and play.

There is a growing body of scientific research that food not only has an impact on our short and long-term mental health.

Stack of assorted donuts on a white plate on pastel blue and pink background

But research is also showing how it plays an important role in the development management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease, according to

The statistics speak volumes. Around two thirds of people who report no daily mental health problems eat fresh fruit every day, compared to less than 50 per cent of those who say they suffer some form of mental health problems.

The charity report that those who report some level of mental health problem also eat fewer healthy foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, organic foods and make meals made from scratch, and more unhealthy foods like chips and crisps, chocolate, ready meals and takeaways.

A good diet is proven to help you sleep better, concentrate more, have an improved mood and better energy levels - all a solid foundation for good mental health.

What exercise can I do?

The word 'exercise' can strike fear into people's hearts - but you're not going to have to join a gym and start pumping iron or run a marathon if that's not your thing.

It's all about just getting out and doing something active that you enjoy.

It can be something as simple as getting out in the fresh air walking a neighbour's dog, going jogging with a pal, trying Yoga from a YouTube video or going to the park to whizz a frisbee around.

Go out and buy a tennis racket or a football and try something new if you want.

The main thing is you're not sat at home wallowing on the coach in front of a Game of Thrones boxset all week.

Evening jogging walk with a dog silhouettes

Any exercise is better than none. Start small and keep doing active things regularly and build them into your weekly routine.

Moderate exercise seems to have the best effect on the brain and its ability to produce dopamine and serotonin, grow new brain cells and stop changes to the grey matter caused by stress, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Thirty minutes of moderate exercise on five out of seven days a week is a good target to aim for.

There is so much information and inspiration out there on the internet for how to be more active and live well.

So go lift some weights, climb a hill, walk to work, try a new sport, hit some pads or whatever else gets the blood pumping and the lungs working. See how it makes you feel.

What can I eat to change things?

Don't underestimate just how much of an impact eating healthier can make you feel.

But you don't have to empty your cupboards and go on some militant diet of 500 calories of salad and boiled chicken to see the benefits.

It's all about just eating a better, healthier and more balanced diet.

On a basic level that means just adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to your meals, slow burning carbohydrates, lean proteins and healthy fats - oh and plenty of water.

Mental health charity Mind says your day-to-day mood is directly linked to the food you eat.

If you're eating lots of sugary junk, takeaways and ready meals, your blood sugar will spike and then crash, leaving you tired and feeling low (and needing more sugar: starting the cycle again).

If you're not getting enough water you'll struggle to concentrate and get the dreaded brain fog.

Avocados with pit. The file includes a excellent clipping path, so it's easy to work with these professionally retouched high quality image. Thank you for checking it out!

Caffeine and other stimulants like energy drinks can worsen your stress, anxiety and depression if you overdo it.

Drinking too much alcohol (and many of us do) can seriously affect your short-term mental health as it induces chemical changes in the brain that will only worsen your stress, anger, anxiety or depression the morning after.

So what specific stuff should you start eating? A good start is phasing out anything with additives, chemicals, sugars or ridiculously long sell by dates, replacing them with fresh food.

Slow-burning carbohydrates like wholegrain bread, sweet potatoes, oats and brown rice will give you a steady source of energy throughout the day - so you don't feel tired, hungry or low on blood sugar.

Healthy fats are great to give you energy, keep you full and satiated but more importantly provide your brain with the essentials it needs to function best. You can eat avocados, olives, nuts like walnuts and almonds or fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids like salmon and mackerel.

Proteins in fish, chicken, beef, eggs, lentils and beans provide you with essential amino acids that help your brain regulate thoughts and feelings, as well as regulate your blood sugar.

This brilliant video from Mind provides a simple guide to eating to improve your mental health...