By Ana Snyder, M.S., Exercise Physiology; CPT, FNS
Your mind is the most important, yet also the most overlooked, part of your health. Every goal you want to achieve in life—be it personal, professional, or fitness—entirely hinges on a healthy state of mind. How many of us have skipped gym days simply because we weren’t in the mood that day? An overwhelmed mind is the start of a slippery slope that will leave you feeling demoralized, powerless, and drained. While there’s no type of protein powder that’s magical for your mind, there are plenty of evidence-based mental health tips at your disposal. Here are some habits you can adopt for a healthier mind and body:
This is probably the easiest one to start with. Humans are creatures of habit and are designed to follow routines. Routines can introduce structure into your life, giving you a sense of control when you feel the most powerless. Most importantly, they introduce predictability, helping you stay organized. Biologically, healthy routines ensure you get adequate sleep, which in turn improves your mental health.
Staying organized doesn’t mean you have to go all Marie Kondo on your life. It has to be manageable, of course. Even the simplest things like making your bed can go a long way. Slowly, you can build up your morning routine by adding other healthy habits, such as exercise and journaling. More ideas for simple morning rituals include budgeting, listening to podcasts, and meditation.
Journaling is an excellent way to maintain good mental health. It can help you process and work through overwhelming emotions. There is plenty of research to show that expressive writing or journaling for mental health is highly effective.
Considering how much your mood and emotions are influenced by chemicals, it is no surprise that diet has a huge impact on mental health. There is a reason you may feel rejuvenated after a green juice but feel groggy after a greasy plate of fries and sugary soda. Sugar, in particular, seems to be the biggest culprit in worsening mental health.
Sugar encourages inflammation and oxidative stress (a process that destroys body cells), which is linked to worsening mood disorders like depression. Diets like the Mediterranean diet or Japanese diet have been linked to a 25-35% lower risk of depression. These diets are rich in fresh vegetables and fruits and low in refined sugar. Fresh vegetables and fruits contain antioxidants (chemicals that reduce oxidative stress) that reduce inflammation.
The bottom line? Incorporate plenty of antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits, like kale and blueberries, into your diet. Avoid refined sugar and trans fat as much as possible.
I can’t talk about summer mental health without talking about summer workouts. Physical exercise and mental health go hand in hand. Just as good mental health helps improve physical performance, physical exercise itself benefits mental health. It’s not just that exercise helps us feel accomplished; it has direct chemical effects on your brain and mood. For example, exercise directs more oxygenated blood to your brain and enlarges the hippocampus (which controls memory).
To maximize mental health benefits from exercise, incorporate aerobic exercise into your summer body workouts. Studies show that aerobic exercise, in particular, improves self-esteem and conscientiousness in people with existing health conditions, for example. More evidence shows that three or more 45–60 minute sessions of aerobic exercise per week can even improve chronic depression. Aerobic exercise includes things like jogging, cycling, and swimming, which are all great for outdoor summer workouts.
If you read anything online about mental health these days, you’re bound to find the word “meditation” somewhere. Meditation isn’t simply a buzzword—it is a practice that has tangible benefits on mental health. Your mind is like a muscle that needs to be trained, just like your abs or biceps. Just as crunches work your abs, meditation works a restless mind.
Ever tried to fall asleep, but decided to take a random online quiz to find out what Disney princess you are? You can thank your restless, poorly trained mind for that. A restless mind costs so much time, energy, and sleep, which in turn worsens your mental health even more. Before you know it, you’re in a vicious cycle. Meditation techniques like mindfulness meditation aim to reign in restless thoughts and improve your focus.
Mindfulness meditation focuses your mind on the present moment by letting go of fleeting thoughts or emotions. The simplest way to do this is to spend a few minutes focusing on nothing but your breathing. Here is a simple guide to mindfulness meditation through breathing:
If you still find mindfulness meditation difficult, you can try a mindfulness app to guide you. Research studies show that even 10 minutes of meditation changes the brain and improves cognitive functions like memory.
Countless surveys and research studies show that a poor work-life balance is a major cause of stress. Things like workplace politics and overworking are leading causes of workplace stress. So, achieving a healthy work-life balance is key to better mental health.
There are many tips and tricks to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. For example, knowing how to delegate work, learning how to make a schedule, and making time for loved ones are all key strategies for this. You can also take up new hobbies that enrich both yourself and the community, by giving back, for example. Try giving back in the form of volunteering, donating old clothes, or being a mentor.
With increasingly hectic lifestyles, it is important to prioritize mental health, but a lot of people don’t. Improving mental health requires a holistic approach that incorporates good exercise, a nutritious diet, and healthy routines. Take time now to prepare your mind for the summer months to come.