You are what you eat! Most of us have heard that before, but do you know what it means? Food and movement are two ways Mental Health of America has identified to promote positive mental health through good health habits.
What Does Food and Movement Have to do with Mental Health?
The truth is, physical and mental health are inseparable. Whatever you do to your body affects your mind, and anything you do to/for your mind affects your body. That is what is meant by the mind/body philosophy. It may seem like new age, woo-woo junk to you, but I assure you, it is based in science and being embraced in the scientific community now.
For example, when you relax by clearing your mind and focusing on your breathing, you may be doing so to calm yourself. The reason this works is that conscious, intentional breathing has a physiologic effect on the various bodily processes. By forcing air in and out of your lungs, you send oxygen to the cells and organs of the body. This has the effect of calming anxiety, centering your thoughts and releasing tension in your muscles. It is all connected. The sooner we learn and accept that, the better we can manage both our physical and mental health.
Food is how we get the nutrients, vitamins and other good things our bodies need to be healthy – physically, mentally and emotionally. One example of this is eating protein. Protein is broken down in the body to provide muscle mass and energy for the body. At the same time, protein feeds the brain (our mental and emotional health) by providing the amino acids that are used in the brain as neurotransmitters.
These neurotransmitters allow our brain cells to talk to each other. Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, dementia, ADHD and others are believed to be caused by problems with neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine and others. When there are too many or not enough neurotransmitters, or the brain cells are unable to communicate properly, the result is mental illness – a brain disorder.
I find it helpful to think of mental illness as a brain disorder, in the same way physical illness is a body disorder. The subject of food and mental health has been discussed here in other articles. I would encourage you to read more about this connection. We are learning more every day about how food and mental health are interrelated. Although this information has always been available, modifications in our food and current farming practices have brought this issue into the limelight in the past few years. We are finding that some of these modifications to how food is grown or processed are responsible for the rise in physical and mental health conditions.
Movement for Those Who Hate to Exercise!
Exercise is not considered a good time for a lot of people. Those with depression often find it difficult to get up the energy to exercise, yet research shows a clear connection between movement and improved mental health. People with anxiety and other disorders may also find exercise to be off-putting. The truth is, most of us feel better after a short walk or playing outside with the dogs. If you find exercise distasteful, here are some things to consider about adding more movement to your life. Shoot for 30 minutes of movement at least three times a week for improved brain health.
· Start small. You don’t have to run a marathon to get exercise. Take a stroll around the block to get started. If you commit to doing this 3-5 times a week, soon you will have the energy to walk two blocks and pick up the pace. Maybe you can take your dog for a walk, or on a trip to the dog park.
· What did you enjoy previously? Think of things you enjoyed doing when you were younger. Chances are they didn’t seem like exercise because you were playing and enjoying the activity. I loved to shoot basketball, swim, ride bikes, play badminton and croquet when we were growing up. Those are things I can do to be more active that don’t seem like exercise. How about you?
· Do something that works with your body. As we age, our bodies are not able to do the things they once did. If you find it hard to walk due to pain or mobility issues, consider water walking or deep water aerobics to relieve the stress from your body. Many activities can be adapted for those with limitations. Check with your local parks and recreation department to see if they have people on staff who can show you how to be more active without hurting yourself. Physical therapists, recreation therapists, movement therapists, yoga instructors, golf pros and others often know how to adapt activities for different needs.
· Variety is the key to sticking with it. It is helpful to plan for rainy days and boredom. You can often buy DVDs of different workouts and activities to do at home on days you don’t want to go out. Mix it up – go to the dog park one day, swim or water walk another day and take a yoga or tai chi class the third day. Yoga, tai chi and similar activities are very good for you and not as hard on the body if done properly.
· Structure and routine. Most people find it helpful to do their exercise at the same time each day. Make it a habit. Put it on your calendar. Follow through. If you get off track, get back into the routine as soon as possible.
A Word to Those with Psychological Limitations
Limitations may be physical or emotional. Those who experienced trauma or shame around exercise or their bodies may have trouble getting past that to get started. Talk to your therapist about this and develop some strategies and skills to manage these issues.
1. The Franklin Institute. (2014). The Human Brain. http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/proteins.html
2. Mental Health Foundation. (2014). Diet and Mental Health. http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/mental-health-a-z/D/diet/
3. Mind. (2010). Food and Mood. http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/food-and-mood/#.U1FB8vldWSo