Good Mental Health and the Role Exercise and Nutrition Play

 What happens when something traumatic in your life happens? I mean when SH!T really hits the fan? Maybe you lost your job, a loved one passed, your significant other left you, or you just broke one of your perfectly manicured nails. Whatever the case may be, in order to get through anything difficult and maintain positive mental health, exercise, nutrition and routines play a vital role.

In my case, I lost my daughter, Feabhra, at 36 weeks pregnant with no medical explanation. Soon after, my sister gave birth to her perfectly healthy baby, other important relationships in my life were crumbling before my eyes, and where I once found comfort and normality at work it turned into a constant reminder of my loss. “How can you be effective at your job and help others when you are in no frame of mind to even help yourself?” is what I thought to myself. One of my good friends made the analogy of putting your own oxygen mask on in the case of an emergency before assisting another person – that is exactly what I needed to do, put on my oxygen mask and learn how to breathe again.

I did not know how to slow down and take care of my mental health and well being and even forgot how to take care of my physical health, I needed some gentle nudging from close friends and family to pull me out of the rabbit hole of depression.

As someone who has always had fitness and health as a main priority in life, I did a temporary switch. I stopped eating, I stopped exercising, and I isolated myself from the people that I loved and cared about – FYI this is what not to do if you want to feel better. I decided I needed to make a change from my self-destructive behaviour and went to see my doctor.

I do not know what I was expecting to hear from the doctor that I did not already know – her advice, “Eat good healthy fats, protein and complex carbs, no sugary foods or ‘bad’ foods, get some exercise everyday.” For some reason even though I have studied the human body as a Kinesiologist and been a personal trainer for the last 5 years I needed someone else to tell me what I was doing to myself was counterintuitive. I knew I had to get back to what I loved doing and find a purpose to move forward. My coping mechanism has been being busy – whether it is studying, working, or focusing on someone else’s problem.

This time, I turned to my good friend Google and started my research on pretty much everything that popped into my head. I am going to share with you the main things (exercise, and healthy food) I think make a difference when you are down in the dumps and some of the scientific research of WHY it actually helps.

1) Exercise to Sweat

The relationship between exercise and mental health has been widely investigated. Raglin (1990) found that exercise, mainly 20-40 minutes of aerobic exercise can have a positive effect on mood, self-esteem, and can decrease anxiety for several hours in individuals that have depression or increased anxiety. Additionally, a meta-analysis of over 15 years research supports Raglin’s (1990) findings that a minimum of 20 minutes of aerobic exercise decreases cardiovascular measures of anxiety (ie. Heart rate, blood pressure) (Petruzello, Landers, Hatfield, Kubitz, Salazar, 1991).

 How does it affect my mood and me?

Performing aerobic exercise also releases ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters that contribute to an elevated mood post workout. Endorphins are released during exercise and are an important neurotransmitter for relieving pain and stress. Other neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, are released during exercise and are important for regulating your mood (Collins, 2016).

So, get out and sweat. 

2) Healthy ‘AF’ foods

By exercising and eating well you not only create physical changes but also mental. Incorporating a well-balanced diet with complex carbohydrates and protein rich foods can not only improve your mood and concentration, but also fuel your workouts and recovery (Collins, 2016).

What is a healthy diet?

A nutritious diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean proteins. Things to avoid: refined sugars, trans fats and excessive salt. A well balanced diet has the essential vitamins and minerals that are imperative for antioxidant effects these effects have been linked to emotional conditions (anxiety, depression, alzheimers etc.) (Dieticians of Canada, 2012).

How does it affect my mood and me?

Cortisol is a hormone produced during stress and can be affected by negative mood states, fatigue and “burnout.” Therefore, psychological factors associated with food intake (i.e. not eating/ lack of appetite) may alter cortisol secretion and mental function. Having a balanced diet is important for maintaining brain function and the release of important neurotransmitters. Ie. Serotonin – from carbohydrates to trigger the release of insulin that helps blood glucose enter the cells and as the insulin levels rise the aminio acid, tryptophan, crosses the blood brain barrier and effects the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin (feel good neurotransmitter). 35% of the brain and nervous system tissue is made out of polyunsaturated fatty acids that include essential fatty acids (ones you must intake on a daily basis) and form phospholipids – these are important for brain signal transduction (your brain to tell your body what to do). Lastly, protein provides amino acids, which are precursors to neurotransmitters – serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and histamine (Dieticians of Canada, 2012).

So, start eating well!

Take Away

Ultimately, if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or any other emotional condition, getting into an exercise routine, knowing what the right foods are that will help, and leaning on people with the right resources will help! There is no shame in improving your knowledge and bettering yourself and the good news is, that when you’re feeling low the only way to go is up.


Thanks for reading.



***update: Extra info/ a TEDTALK I just recently watched that relates to this.

Q: Want to make a difference in your mood and change your brain??

A: Exercise!

Check out the TEDTALK below from a neuroscientist:



Collins, R. (2016). Exercise, Depression, and the Brain. Retrieved March 9, 2018, from

Davison KM, Ng E, Chandrasekera U, Seely C, Cairns J, Mailhot-Hall L, Sengmueller E, Jaques M, Palmer J, Grant-Moore J for Dietitians of Canada. The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health Promotion and Prevention (1). Toronto: Dietitians of Canada, 2012. Access at:

Petruzello, S. J., Hatfield, B., Landers, D. M., & Salazar, W. (1991). A Meta-Analysis on the Anxiety-Reducing Effects of Acute and Chronic Exercise. Sports Medicine, 11(3), 143-182. Retrieved March 9, 2018, from

Raglin, J. S. (1990). Exercise and Mental Health. Sp, 9(6), 323-329. Retrieved March 9, 2018, from




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