What is the Connection Between Fitness and Mental Health?
Total fitness and overall health go far beyond just the physical. Our mental, emotional, and even environmental health can have just as much impact on our quality of life as going to the gym every day or suffering an injury.
In fact, the relationship between physical and mental health is proving to be much more closely entwined than was previously speculated. But just how close are they?
According to registered dietician Anar Allidina, “Mental health has a huge impact on our body because how we think, our thoughts, they control how we react, how we live. So, when we are not in a good space mentally, that impacts everything in our body in terms of what we eat, how we move, and what we do.”
Mauro Orrico, head coach at Incite Coaching stated, “For a long time, we used to feel like our brain tells our body things, and it seems to be more of a two-way street than we first anticipated where perhaps the way your body is feeling affects your mental health and the way your mental health feels affects the body.”
As far as how much of an impact this connection can have, Orrico noted that dealing with mental health issues “can be debilitating in some senses where you can’t do much, you can’t really leave your bed in some cases. It’s just that heavy… Sometimes there are psychosomatic manifestations of things that are giving us challenges mentally. If you think of something like tightness in your chest that can be from stress that you’re experiencing, from anxiety, and that’s a physical manifestation of something that started off as a mental thing.”
We take a look at how nutrition, activity, and even time in nature can help to support both your physical and mental health with practical tips for making a change from our experts.
The Gut-Brain Axis
One of the biggest factors to consider when looking at the connection between fitness and mental health, is nutrition and gut health.
Allidina noted, “This area of research, over the last few years, has really gotten a lot of attention, and now studies are showing how nutrition is such a huge component of mental health.”
Orrico also noted, “There are a lot of studies that have come out to say that certain types of food, eating certain ways, tend to have more correlation with poor mental health outcomes than others. They say that your gut is your second brain so a lot of times the way you’re treating your stomach, your intestinal tract, has an influence on the way you think and feel.”
This concept of the stomach acting as our second brain speaks to the gut-brain axis. Allidina described how the brain and the gut “communicate via the vagus nerve, and [this communication is] bidirectional, which is incredibly powerful. In our gut, that’s where over 90% of serotonin is made just with our gut microbiome.”
While our bodies are able to produce a large amount of the hormones and neurochemicals that we need to function, as Orrico stated, “sometimes we’re not able to get all those nutrients naturally. We can’t synthesize them within our body, so we have to take them in, and that’s why things like protein become so important.”
He also talked about the importance of probiotics and fermented foods. “They have a positive influence on our GI tract which in turn has a positive influence on our brain and our brain's capacity to function. And that’s been proven ten times over with many of the studies that show if you’re having probiotics regularly, or if you’re having something fermented, which is essentially the same thing, it has a positive influence on your mental health and wellness.”
Tyler Sarry, a fitness and health coach, added, “It’s important to eat whole, nutritious foods so that we can fuel our bodies and our minds. It’s one of the steps that we take to take care of ourselves. I think that good nutrition has a strong correlation to a healthy mindset and an exceptionally strong relationship to mental health.
While all of these steps towards a healthier gut-brain relationship can be easily applied by anyone, it is also important that individuals look out for foods that might be having a negative impact. Orrico warns “There are certain foods that tend to trigger us in different ways. So, rather than adding something to your diet, maybe you want to take something out that has a triggering effect.” This could apply to anything from dairy, gluten, eggs, or any other potential food-based trigger that is impacting your gut health and, by extension, your mental health as well.
Movement and Nature
Two more important factors that go hand in hand in their contribution to both physical and mental wellbeing are movement and time spent in nature.
Allidina explained, “When we exercise it really helps boost our mood. Again getting those feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, really gives us a flood of those feel-good chemicals that really impacts how we think and how we can tackle our day, how we can manage stress, how we sleep, so it has a huge impact on our mood.”
Orrico noted that “Many people use exercise and activity to foster mental health, to almost, I don’t want to say self-medicate, but to help themselves feel better by going out and going for a walk, taking a quick break, just mentally and physically removing yourself from the situation to think it over without any other distractions or inputs. It has a really big impact.”
Sarry echoed this sentiment, adding, “Physical activity and immersing oneself in nature have been proven to have a positive influence on our mental well-being which is what initially led me to advocating for mental health. It doesn’t have to be intense. Even a quick walk around the block can work wonders.”
Beyond taking a walk in nature, Allidina also suggests that getting some sun first thing in the morning could help as this triggers our body to produce melatonin 16 hours after that initial morning exposure which “can be really profound in terms of helping you sleep, which then also plays a role with our mental health. The more rested we are, that’s when our body can reset, and we just feel better the next day.”
One way to get some exercise and some of nature's goodness is by visiting an outdoor gym. Get the low down on everything you need with our Outdoor Gym Survival Guide.
Make Small Changes
The consensus from all three of our experts is that small, manageable changes done consistently will result in higher success in building new habits over drastic and unsustainable workouts or diets.
Sarry advises to “Find balance. Don't have an all-or-nothing approach. Start small if exercise is not something you have much experience with. Find activities that you enjoy so that you look forward to them and incorporate them into your daily life. If possible, find ways to include your friends and family. Not only will this be a fun way to engage in physical activities and spend time with them, but they will help in holding you accountable.”
Allidina also noted, “Especially with something like mental health, with anxiety and depression and stress, it can really take a toll on you, not knowing what to do or just not feeling the greatest. That’s why small, small steps really are huge. Even if you’re not ready to start an exercise program, just getting outside to walk, even for just ten minutes, can really make a difference in how you feel.”
If you’ve come across this article looking for suggestions because you are currently struggling with your mental health, it’s important to know that the best thing you can do for yourself is ask for help.
Allidina recommends, “Definitely speaking to someone, getting help. There’s no shame in that. Sometimes we just need some guidance on where to go, so don’t be afraid of that, talking to someone. That’s really really important.” She continued, “Sometimes speaking to someone or even going on some medication, it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed or that something’s wrong with you at all, it’s just, sometimes, you do need some help with that.”
Be Kind to Yourself
In the continued spirit of taking care of yourself, it’s also important to not be too hard on yourself.
Orrico suggested, “First and foremost, don’t try to be perfect. Something is better than nothing. If your win is getting outside and walking to the mailbox and back, that’s a win. You don’t want to undervalue and undercut what you’re capable of doing. Don’t discredit what you’re able to do. Start somewhere. Do something…Sometimes some wins are bigger than others, some days are a little bit more of a challenge than others, but the fact that you willed yourself to at least get out of bed, get out, go for a walk, that’s a win in itself and that’s something you give yourself kudos for and try to replicate again tomorrow if conditions provide the opportunity”
Allidina adds that a key aspect of success is “Starting small, not making huge goals, not committing to something like a gym membership or a diet that you need to buy certain things for. Just starting where you are at and making those small changes daily and making that consistent. So it’s the consistency that’s really going to help you with achieving the results you want… just pick one or two things you can work on during the week and then build on from that.”
Sarry echoed these sentiments and added, “Be kind to yourself. Take it one day at a time, and celebrate both the big and little victories. Not every day will be a good one, but even the little steps are big steps towards a change in the right direction. Don’t give up. Keep going! You’ve got this!”
Allidina shared a reminder that “Sometimes we just need to start somewhere and that can snowball into a bigger lifestyle change.”
Make a Plan
Another key to making successful, sustained changes is to have a plan.
Orrico recommended, “Be clear about what you want to change. Paint yourself that picture so you are almost imagining that you are already there…Know the signs, the milestones, that get you to that goal, because, once you set that target, that goal, you want to almost forget it right away and start to talk about, what does tomorrow look like? What’s my first step look like? What’s my first meal? What’s my first exercise activity? And then break it up into these chunks where you can hit these milestone markers, you can hit these targets knowing that that will get you to your eventual goal and you never actually have to worry about that eventual goal because you’re just worrying about today, what you can do with what you have, where you are.”
Sarry further suggested, “Focus on the things you can change while setting reasonable goals/objectives. Make a SMART goal: Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Don’t forget to celebrate the small wins along the way. You’re doing a great job! Keep going!”
Orrico also cautioned against being too critical of your progress, “Don’t discredit yourself for any sort of improvement you’re making. Take the steps that you can take today, and then, tomorrow, you just try to improve that or maintain it and you will get to your goal. It’s a matter of being consistent rather than being intense.”
Eat Better to Feel Better
In addition to the small daily steps that you can start taking to incorporate more movement, activity, and time in nature, there are also several simple solutions to start building a healthier gut.
Allidina shared her list of recommendations: “The number one thing I would say is to increase the amount of plant foods in your diet...I want you to think about what you can add to your diet as opposed to what you restrict. This just makes it easier for anyone to embrace. But plant foods specifically, they have that fiber, which really helps our gut health. So you're going to be helping your gut microbiome which then is going to help you feel good…it could be adding in more vegetables, more fruit, that could really help, and maybe switching out some meats for beans and lentils.
“Number two is just to get in the routine of having scheduled meals…Just spacing out your meals, getting into a structure of having breakfast, lunch, and dinner…focusing on your first meal of the day, which then can set the tone for the rest of the day as well. So focusing on that, at least having a good breakfast that has protein and fiber that’s going to keep your blood sugar stable, which when your blood sugars are stable it directly impacts your mood so that’s really powerful as well.
“The third thing would just be to stay hydrated. Just drinking water, you don’t need to get anything fancy. Just first thing when you wake up in the morning, you want to hydrate. When we sleep we’re in a state of dehydration so getting hydration first thing in the morning is so good for our digestion our focus concentration, it can really play a huge role.”
She also added, “Focus on what you can add instead of restricting. Focusing on having whole foods as much as possible. These have a lot of vitamins, a lot of minerals that really help your cellular health and help your cells communicate with one another.”
Her final suggestion, as a note on her earlier recommendation to add more fibrous veggies to your diet: “If you’re increasing more fiber in your diet with more plant foods it's really important that you increase your water intake as well to help the fiber push through your system so you don’t get bloating or constipated. So fiber and water really go hand in hand.”
One of the ways that you can make sure that you are giving your body the fuel it needs to take on new activity is to get enough protein. Check out our protein calculator to see how many grams a day you should be getting.
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Meet Our Experts
Anar Allidina is a Registered Dietitian. Her area of specialty is helping those living with insulin-resistant reverse prediabetes and better manage symptoms of PCOS and type 2 diabetes. She shows her clients how to balance their blood sugars, boost energy, mood, and decrease cravings - without giving up their favourite foods and cutting out food groups. She strongly believes that building a sustainable lifestyle approach is the key to success. She is a clinical dietitian at the Medcan Clinic in Toronto and has virtual practice where she sees clients across the globe.
Mauro Orrico is a coach, educator, speaker, and podcaster. He is a registered kinesiologist, nutrition coach, and certified personal trainer. He provides in-home, online, and personalized training with over 15 years of experience. He received his Bachelor of Science in kinesiology and health sciences from York University where his dedication to self-improvement, focus on individual approach for maximum results, use of outcome-based decision making, and evidence-based approach has made him the “go-to person” for physical health and fitness.