In the work we do at Social House Wellness Center, relationships come up often. Whether it’s the one between partners, spouses, or parents and children, how we relate is important. The relationship you have with your mom, the toxic dynamic you share with a co-worker, even your way of talking to and thinking about yourself – these relationships all fall on a spectrum. Some are positive and promote growth, and others do the opposite. We’re all familiar with these types of relationships and the role they play in our lives. But there’s another type that’s important too. It’s rarely the first to come to mind, and for some of us, it’s a difficult one to discuss. It’s the relationship between diet, exercise, and mental health.

Before we move forward, we need to address some potentially unhelpful terminology. Because of trends, fads, and a litany of products pushed on social media, the word diet has become like any other four-letter word you might avoid saying in front of children. We don’t like it and for good reason. The idea of going on a diet is as appealing as going on a blind-date your parents set up, or getting a root canal. The word exercise isn’t much better. We tend to immediately think of our worst memories from high school P.E., of doing jumping jacks or being forced to run. And when we try to go to the gym or workout, it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparison, to feel inadequate, and to quickly give up. Sometimes the heaviest weights to lift are the ones of our own making: expectation, regret, and shame.

We need a better paradigm – a way of thinking and talking about these ideas without the baggage. In place of the word diet, consider exchanging it for a concept like “what you give your body.” And while you’re at it, replace exercise with something as simple as “how you move your body.” Find some ideas that work for you, and get in the habit of bringing them to mind when you find the rest of the world using outdated and limited language. 

Using that as our foundation, what we give our bodies matters – and not just to a scale or how our jeans fit, but to our brains. We’ve all heard the expression “you are what you eat,” but a more accurate way of thinking about that is this: we tend to feel like what we eat. When we give our bodies what they need to function at a high level, and when we do that consistently, we tend to feel good. We have energy, focus, and mental clarity. It turns out, those foods we may have been told to eat as children are as good for our brains as they are our bodies. A 2015 article from Harvard Medical School underlines this with some key points:

  • Serotonin – the neurotransmitter that is responsible for our sleep, appetite, and helps referee our moods – is almost exclusively produced in our gastrointestinal tract. When you give your body the kind of food it needs – meals full of fruits, vegetables, good grains, and the right starches, proteins, and fiber – “good” bacteria are produced in your G.I. tract. Neural pathways that travel directly from your gut to your brain are activated, and you feel better.
  • Probiotics – those “good” bacteria in supplement form – have been shown to improve mental outlook, reduce anxiety, and change the way you perceive stress.
  • And finally, people who eat in a “traditional” way – think Mediterranean or Japanese – show a 25% to 30% lower risk for depression than others who stick closely to a “Western” diet.

This is powerful information, and it may intuitively click with what you already believe about food. But we also know that this relationship can be tricky. For a lot of us, stress doesn’t make us want to reach for an apple nearly as much as a bag of chips. You may keep a pint of ice cream tucked into the back of your freezer in case of an emergency. If your job is stressful and your default way of unwinding at the end of the day is fast-food on the way home and a few beers before bed, you’re not alone. Those neural pathways we mentioned earlier are formed for good or bad, for health or disease. We get to make that choice.

This much is equally true: when we don’t consistently give our bodies what they need, we won’t feel inclined or motivated to find ways of moving our bodies. These two work together, especially in the long-term. When your body is producing the right amount of Serotonin, and when you’re well-rested and fueling your body with the right balance of foods, you’ll have a kind of energy you may not instantly recognize. This is you, though – the “you” that may have been buried under processed food substitutes, refined sugars, and excess alcohol. Suddenly you feel lighter. Your thinking is quicker and clearer, and you feel a strong need to take care of yourself. Giving your body what it needs makes you very aware of what your body wants, and our bodies were designed to move.

This is the great news about how you decide to move your body: you never need to set foot inside a gym. Movement is free, and you can do it nearly anywhere. Your city park doesn’t require a membership to walk their track. The floor in your bedroom is a fine spot to roll out a mat and practice yoga. Are you unsure where to start? Countless videos on YouTube will walk you through it. You don’t even need weights to take control of your fitness. Functional movements like push-ups, sit-ups, and air squats (just to name a few), require a tiny footprint and can be done from home. Just like with how you feed your body, movement is about consistency. Reps will increase, flexibility will develop, and distance will be gained over time. You simply have to choose to do it – even when you don’t feel like it.

Several years back, the American Psychological Association published an article explaining some of the ways movement benefits our mental health. The list included things few of us couldn’t use more of in our lives, including:

  • Mood enhancement – active people are less depressed than inactive people, and exercise can be instrumental in preventing relapse. In many cases, exercise was generally comparable to antidepressant use in people with a major depressive disorder.
  • Anxiety reduction – because physical movement can produce many of the same sensations as panic (sweating, dizziness, dry mouth, increased heart rate), we develop a better sense of how to process those feelings in a safe environment.
  • A sense of accomplishment – since physical movement, especially if it’s been a while or we’ve never been very active, signals overcoming obstacles, pushing through difficulty, and completing a challenge, even if initially that’s just going for a walk.

At Social House, we treat all of who you are. This includes your relationship with what you eat, how you move, and when you do. We recognize that extremes in these areas – from overeating to repeatedly skipping meals, and from never moving to obsessive exercise – are equally unhealthy and potentially dangerous. We exist to help take some of the guesswork out of relationships, decision-making, and finding a healthy, sustainable approach to your life. We empower positive change, and don’t find any motivation in looking back on what you could have done, or should have done, differently. As they say, there’s a reason a car’s windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror. So give your body what it needs, and allow it to move like it was made to. Your mind will thank you.