The Role of Diet and Exercise in Mental Health

Maintaining mental health can be difficult; there are so many factors that can affect it. Trying to keep everything in check can be overwhelming when you don’t know where to start. One facet of life that many people don’t always think affects mental health is diet and exercise.

Assessing your diet and exercise may be a good place to start to see where improvements may improve your mental health. It’s important to remember that nothing is static — your mental health, diet, and exercise may change daily, and that’s okay!

Lifestyle changes take work and time.

Nutrition & Mental Health 

You may assume that what you eat, your diet, just involves your physical self, but that’s not true. Your diet affects your overall health, including your mental health. When you have an unbalanced or poor diet, it can affect the various systems in your body.

Your immune system, cardiovascular system, and your GI tract are all affected by your diet. For example, your GI tract is a big component in regulating your body; you can see changes to your skin, energy, and hormones when your GI system is not well nourished. This means your mood is affected too!

You might be thinking, “But I feel so good when I have a soda,” which is true! Sugar spikes dopamine in the gut, but this is a fast and temporary spike that leads to a quick drop. A constant diet with high sugar levels can lead your brain to constantly need large amounts of those feel-good hormones (dopamine and serotonin).

The fast fluctuations with sugar spikes lead to mood swings, memory issues, and lack of concentration. Additionally, it can worsen symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders.

It’s best to stick to whole, less processed, unaltered foods that don’t contain a lot of dyes, preservatives, added sugars, and additives. Foods with ingredients you can understand, whole grains, and various colors from fruits and vegetables.

Many of us aren’t sure what is considered healthy and may not have a nutritionist accessible. We recommend reading this blog for some tips about nutrition to shift our diet into a healthier one.

Receiving enough micronutrients from food is also very important. This may be something you aren’t aware of, as society tends to focus on the calories, carbs, fats, and proteins found in food. A lack of vitamins and minerals can have a massive effect on your well-being. For example, appropriate amounts of folate help produce dopamine naturally.

This means there won’t be the rollercoaster effect that ingesting high amounts of sugar causes. Deficiencies in magnesium can affect muscles and nerves and your mental health, such as a flare-up of anxiety or depression symptoms. Magnesium can also help your sleep quality, boosting your mood and energy.

Another important part of your diet to evaluate is serving size. Often we overeat, so having appropriate portions is something to be aware of to watch weight management and not overload your GI tract trying to digest a large meal.

Weight loss or weight management is important to prevent obesity which can cause a lot of health issues, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and organ dysfunction.

It’s especially important to note that when you don’t physically feel good, this can affect your mental health as well. Some factors can’t be helped.

For example, those who suffer from medical conditions or chronic diseases that may cause chronic pain. Despite their best efforts, they will still struggle and be affected to a certain degree. Try to do your best to keep a healthy diet within your limitations.

Wellness is different for everyone; the whole picture won’t be affected by one “unhealthy” meal or food. A good diet is more important than a fad diet; there is a toxic nature around diets. A healthy way of eating should be focused on overall health, not just weight loss or weight gain, to fit into society’s rigid standards.

This blog can help break down and educate about the toxic behaviors seen with diet culture and how it too can affect mental health. Change is hard; it can be difficult and stressful to do a complete overhaul of the foods you are used to.

This can cause us to revert to old ways, which spike stress and anxiety when trying to improve our well-being. So try looking at what you eat as a whole, replace one unhealthy thing with a healthier version, and your diet will be more beneficial for you, physically and mentally. When you make positive changes to your diet, your mood and mental health will thank you!

Exercise & Mental Health

It’s well known that exercise has an array of health benefits — from weight loss to improved cardio health to mental health management.

Regular exercise can have a major effect on mental health. When you take part in any amount of physical activity, you allow yourself to destress. This lets the tension out of your body but also allows your brain to receive endorphins which can naturally make you feel good.

These feel-good hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine help your focus, attention, memory, and mood, which is a huge benefit to those who struggle with ADHD. These hormones also help those who experience PTSD or trauma as it helps get you out of feeling stuck in those struggles.

Anxiousness can be knocked back by physically exerting those panicked feelings, getting those worries out instead of cycling them in your head. Being able to let out stress and frustrations in a positive manner can boost your mood and distract you from the troubles or behaviors that often can keep you feeling low.

It can help clear your mind to better allow you to process thoughts and emotions, make decisions, and even set new goals. Often those who struggle with their mental health feel out of control or a victim of their mind; exercise can help reduce that chaotic feeling and make you feel more in control of your mind.

If you are a beginner at exercising or working out, you may not know where to start. Seeking out a personal trainer could help with that; they could figure out an exercise regime for you. But not everybody can utilize a trainer.

You could also try different ways to exercise until you find one that vibes with you. Some people prefer cardio (aerobic exercise) such as running, cycling, swimming, boxing, or dancing. Others prefer strength training, such as weight lifting, pilates, and yoga.

There is no need to pick one over the other; you could swim one day or do yoga the next. Once you start moving your body, your connection to yourself will strengthen, and you may be able to start reading what your body needs.

Say you had a rough day at work; maybe you made a mistake you are obsessing over. You’re pent up with frustration. Previously you would just let it stress you out and spiral your mental health.

Instead, you lace up your sneakers and go out for a run. By the time you do your first loop, you feel better. That weight is gone off your chest; you forgive yourself for your mistake instead of berating yourself for it. This is the immense benefit of exercise to improve mental health.

Shifts in Mental Health

Once you begin the transition of your routine to a healthier lifestyle, the benefits will soon follow. You’ll be receiving the right nutrition through your food, so your mood, energy, and sleep will improve.

You’ve introduced exercise a few times a week, which helps relieve stress and frustrations. For most of us, our mental health struggles or disorders don’t disappear (unfortunately), but by making changes to a healthier lifestyle, it is easier to manage mental health.

Reaching out to professionals such as your doctor, therapist, personal trainer, and even a dietitian can be beneficial to creating a plan for you. They can tailor a meal plan, healthy weight goals, an exercise routine, or supplements necessary to help you take control of your health and well-being.

A very important thing to remember is that some of us struggle with disordered eating or other similar issues. This can make anything to do with diet/exercise extremely difficult, stressful, and even triggering for your mental health. Please reach out to a medical professional to help create a plan tailored for your and your mental health.

The Role of Diet and Exercise in Mental Health

The importance of a healthy diet and routine exercise on mental health is evident. Eating a chocolate bar or skipping a workout when you are exhausted won’t be the downfall of your mental health.

The statement “everything in moderation” is an important thing to keep in mind. Being too strict with oneself can actually cause more stress than anything. Little changes add up, so give yourself grace as you make healthy changes.


Nutrition and Mental Health | National Library of Medicine

Effects of a High Sugar Diet | Texas Institute for Neurological Disorders

Food for Your Mood | Aetna

The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise | HelpGuide

Nutritional Psychiatry | Harvard Medical School

Exercise and Mental Health | BetterHealth