Making an effort to engage in physical exercise and eat a balanced diet is known to have benefits for improving physical health and reducing your risk for conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Fewer people understand the advantages that fitness and nutrition can offer for maintaining and promoting mental and emotional health.
While there are limitations to the benefits lifestyle factors like exercise and good nutrition can have for mental health, it can still be helpful to recognize ways that small changes can improve your mood and general outlook.
During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many people are searching for ways to combat rising depression, anxiety, and to cope with feelings of uncertainty, grief, and loss.
Eating well and exercising are not a fix for these struggles. Within a broader wellness plan, however, restoring nutrition and finding safe outlets for exercise can still offer a number of benefits.
Here, you’ll find information on:
- the connection between fitness and mental health
- benefits and limitations of exercise for mental health
- the effects of nutrition and diet on mental health
- incorporating fitness and nutrition into your mental health treatment
Physical Fitness And Mental Health
Many people who engage in regular physical activity report experiencing mental and psychological benefits. The American Psychological Association describes this as “the exercise effect”.
Research shows that there are several mechanisms to explain this link. One of the links between exercise and mental health is the direct effects of physical activity on the brain.
Exercise can stimulate certain feel-good hormones known as endorphins and enkephalins. Exercise can also reduce inflammation in the brain, promote neural growth, and boost levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
General mental health benefits of exercise may include:
- reduced anxiety
- reduced depression
- stress and tension relief
- enhanced sense of well-being
- increased motivation
- improved sleep
- increased creativity and mental flexibility
- serves as a supportive coping strategy
Physical activity has also been associated with improved cognition functions in people with dementia and schizophrenia—where cognitive decline is a marked feature.
According to some research, exercise may support growth in the hippocampus, which is a brain region involved in emotional regulation, memory, and learning. This can improve cognitive functions and thus help to restore cognitive health in a limited capacity.
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There’s also research to suggest the effects of exercise on a person’s fight-or-flight response, which may help treat anxiety and panic disorders.
Exercise can cause many of the same physical reactions that very stressful situations can—such as sweating, a rush of adrenaline, and increased heart rate. Certain types of exercise, according to some mental health professionals, may then help to reduce sensitivity to anxiety.
How Physical Activity Can Support Addiction Recovery
Many people turn to substances like drugs and alcohol to relieve stress or to cope with situations in their life that feel unmanageable. This may include mental health symptoms such as depressive thoughts, anxiety, and paranoid thinking. Healthy physical activity can help distract from urges to use or to drink.
Going out for a walk or a run can also physically remove yourself from a triggering environment. In effect, exercise can serve as a positive coping strategy for improving mood and stress management.
Getting into a regular exercise routine can also offer structure, improve self-esteem, and provide an opportunity to explore new interests.
What Types Of Exercise Can Boost Mental Health?
Rigorous exercise isn’t for everyone, and it’s not the only form of exercise that can promote positive mental health. On the contrary, taking a walk, going for a swim, or participating in weight training can also promote greater quality of life and a positive sense of wellbeing.
Common forms of exercise that can boost mental health include:
- aerobic exercise
- strength training
- Tai chi
- jogging or running
Choosing to participate in forms of exercise you enjoy can also be an important factor. If you don’t get any enjoyment out of running or weight-lifting, forcing yourself to do those things is unlikely to offer much beyond potential physical benefits.
Social activities, such as going kayaking, rock-climbing, or participating in contact sports can offer dual benefits through social interaction and a mental health boost. Moving your body in ways that feel good physically can also make you feel better mentally.
If you’re planning on starting a new fitness routine to improve your mental health, consider talking to a doctor first. Vigorous exercise may worsen symptoms of certain mental illnesses, such as psychotic disorders and people in the early stages of drug withdrawal.
Limitations Of Exercise For Mental Health
Physical activity can offer benefits for the mind, body, and spirit. However, it’s important to recognize that physical activity may not be accessible for everyone.
This may include people with certain physical disabilities and chronic health conditions. It also cannot be considered a comprehensive treatment for mental health concerns by itself.
Exercise is not a replacement for other forms of treatment for mental illness, such as antidepressants and psychotherapy. In addition, people with certain mental illnesses may need to be careful about how exercise is incorporated into their regular routine.
For people with eating disorders, for instance, exercise can often be a trigger and may serve as an unhealthy behavior without guidance from a medical or behavioral health professional. When it comes to exercise, it’s best to seek medical advice and guidance from a healthcare professional.
Nutrition And Mental Health
Your brain is one of your body’s most important organs. And like other organs in your body, your brain needs food to function.
A balanced diet incorporates a healthy balance of whole grains, simple and complex carbohydrates, protein, fats, and a variety of fruits and vegetables—which contain essential vitamins and minerals. When you’re not eating enough, or your diet is unbalanced, this can affect your mood, cognitive functions, and energy level.
Malnutrition, which can occur when you’re eating too little or are deficient in certain nutrients, has been linked to a whole host of negative side effects on both the brain and the body.
Effects of a poor diet on mental health may include:
- poor judgment
- inability to focus
- cloudy thinking
- difficulty sleeping
- irrational thinking
Changes in appetite and diet are common among people with eating disorders, depression, severe anxiety, and substance use disorders.
Restricting how much you eat or largely restricting your diet to highly processed foods that fail to provide essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants can have major effects on how you think, feel, and behave.
This can have important implications for people with mood disorders in addition to substance use and psychotic disorders.
Eating a balanced diet supports proper brain function. Lacking sufficient nutrition can affect both the structure and function of your brain. This can show up in how you interact with others, your decision-making skills, and can have long-term implications for cognitive and emotional health.
Benefits Of Nutritional Therapy For Mental Health
Getting appropriate nutrition can boost both physical and mental health. For this reason, some addiction treatment centers and mental health facilities now incorporate treatments like nutritional therapy to emphasize the role of nutrition in improving mental health.
Nutritional therapy is a complementary treatment that is based on the idea that a nutritious diet and certain lifestyle behaviors can be beneficial to the mind, body, and spirit.
Heavy drug and alcohol abuse, for instance, can deplete the body of certain nutrients, cause fatigue, and have negative effects on organ function. According to the National Library of Medicine, alcohol use is one of the major causes of nutritional deficiencies in the United States.
Proper nutrition can support recovery from substance abuse, and can offer several benefits for people whose diets have suffered as a consequence of mental health problems.
Benefits of proper nutrition include:
- increased energy
- building and maintaining healthy organs
- improved ability to fight off infections
- reduced anxiety
- improved focus and concentration
Not all foods may offer the same benefits, however. Diet quality matters for supporting brain health and nutritional restoration. For instance, several research studies have found evidence that eating a Mediterranean diet can lower risk of depression.
This type of diet is relatively low in sugar and high in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, fish, and the so-called “healthy fats” that can be found in avocados, olive oil, nuts, and similar fat sources.
Taking food supplements such as magnesium, zinc, omega-3 Vitamin B12, calcium pills, and Vitamin D may also be recommended for people who have become malnourished due to heavy substance use or mental disorders. This supplementation can promote physical and mental recovery.
Limitations Of Diet Changes For Mental Health
Any dietary changes in the name of mental health should be first discussed with a doctor. People with certain health conditions—such as diabetes, anorexia, or Celiac’s disease—have specific dietary needs that should not be altered without medical guidance. Cutting out entire food groups or adopting restrictive dietary patterns without consulting a doctor is not recommended.
Like physical activity, dietary intervention shouldn’t serve as a replacement to mental health treatments such as psychotherapy and medication.
Deciding to incorporate foods into your diet that are nutritious and satisfying can be supportive for mental health, but they cannot replace an evidence-based treatment plan.
What Mental Health Conditions Can Nutrition And Exercise Help Treat?
Generally, anyone is subject to experience the mental health benefits from a healthy diet and regular exercise. People with certain mental health conditions, however, can sometimes be more sensitive to the effects of poor nutrition and inactivity.
Enhancing your diet and getting regular exercise can be helpful for people with many mental health conditions.
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- major depression
- alcohol abuse and addiction
- drug abuse
- bipolar disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Find The Right Wellness Plan For You
Mental health can be influenced by a range of factors—including genetics, biology, and social determinants of health that may be out of our personal control.
Your nutritional needs, and fitness recommendations, may also be influenced by these factors, as well as personal factors such as body size, gender, age, and health history. Eating well can make you feel well, as can moving your body in ways that feel good and make you feel strong.
Healthy food choices and exercise are small changes people can make that can support mental wellness. But everyone has different needs. Taking nutritional supplements or getting daily exercise, are not magical cures for depression, anxiety, or other severe mental health issues.
If you’re interested in learning what dietary changes or exercise can do to help improve your health, consider contacting a nutritionist or licensed dietician.
If you have an existing treatment team for mental health or addiction issues, you might also consider speaking to a doctor and counselor about the role of fitness and nutrition in your treatment.
Published on November 5, 2020
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- American Psychological Association—The exercise effect
- Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing—Nutritional Psychiatry: Your brain on food
- Psychology Today—How Your Mental Health Reaps the Benefits of Exercise
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubMedCentral—Understanding nutrition, depression, and mental illness
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus—Substance use recovery and diet