We’re all well aware of the obvious benefits of exercise and eating right – a more attractive body, increased strength and endurance, a healthier immune system, maybe even losing a few pounds. But did you know that choosing a healthy lifestyle extends far further than just your physicality? It’s true, there are numerous psychological benefits that exercise and healthy eating cause in your life. Like a pebble tossed into a pond, the ripples of good choices extend across all aspects of your life. Let’s take a look at a few of these positive effects:
The Effects Of Exercise
- Stress reduction and resiliency to stress – Exercise is the number one way recommended by health care professionals to reduce stress. Exercise causes your body to produce and release endorphins which in turn act as painkillers and improve the ability to sleep which both combats stress and increases your ability to deal with stress and stressful situations.
- Mood enhancement and lowered anxiety – Along with endorphins, exercise also causes an increase in serotonin. This chemical cocktail helps to distract your mind from anxious thoughts, and the mood enhancing benefits of exercise can be felt within 5 minutes of moderate exercise. Additionally, research studies have shown that because many of the symptoms people experience during anxiety are also experienced during exercise (increased heart rate, sweating etc.) the brain begins to associate these symptoms with safety instead of danger lessening the symptoms of anxiety.
- Improved self-esteem – In the short term, the enhanced mood and lowered anxiety alone help exercise to improve your self esteem. Over a longer period of time, the realization that you’re actively taking control of an element of your life with intent and dedication along with the physical side effects of exercise combine to improve your self esteem.
- Pride in physical accomplishments – With any sustained exercise program, there will naturally be an increase in physical ability. This leads to a (well deserved!) sense of pride that spills over into points 2 and 3 as well.
- Increased satisfaction with oneself – When realizing the mental toughness that comes along with dedicating oneself to exercise over time, and seeing the physical results accompanying that decision, there is an increased self satisfaction that naturally occurs.
- Improved body image – This is such a touchy subject these days. No matter where you may stand in the body positivity debate, when you see the positive changes exercise over time will enact upon your body, your mental image of yourself will improve (again, WELL deserved!)
- Increased feelings of energy – You may think that because exercise requires you to expend energy, you’ll feel physically tired. Counter intuitively, exercising regularly will increase blood flow and oxygen delivery within your body, providing more ready energy throughout your day.
- Improved confidence in your physical abilities – When performing physically during exercise, you become more aware of your limits. Often being surprised at how much further you’re capable of pushing yourself. With this knowledge comes an improved confidence in your abilities.
- Decreased symptoms associated with depression – For multiple reasons, including increased serotonin, brain derived neurotophic factor and sleep normalization, and several of the factors listed above, exercise is thought to decrease the symptoms of depression and provide protection to the brain from depression.
- Better sleep – While not completely understood, moderate exercise can have a positive effect on sleep. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine: “We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.” What we DO know is that serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite. So I’m sure the increased serotonin production that exercise causes also plays a role in improved sleep quality.
The Effects of Proper Diet
Our brains are in a constant wash of chemicals that it uses to reward our good behaviors, signal changes to us and alter the way we feel, but where do these chemicals come from? They’re produced by our bodies from the foods that we eat. If we’re not giving our bodies the proper fuels they need to produce these needed chemicals by consuming our macronutrients and micronutrients, then we can’t reasonably expect our brains to be able to function at peak performance. This lack of ability for peak performance can be reflected in our sleep, our health and our moods. When we commit to eating right, then we equip our brains and bodies to re-balance themselves and to operate more effectively and efficiently, which can lead to a host of improvements, including:
- Lower inflammation – While we often associate inflammation with swelling, inflammation is the body’s response to protect us from infection with foreign organisms like bacteria and viruses. Our white blood cells release chemicals into the body to fight these invaders, and some of the chemicals leak fluid into our tissues that cause swelling. Many processed foods, or foods high in refined sugars can trigger our bodies to have an inflammatory reaction. By removing these foods from our diet, and consuming healthy foods – typically rich in anti-oxidants, we will experience less inflammation.
- Less oxidative stress – Oxidative stress is another name for the damage caused to your body by free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage the cells in your body. They are caused when atoms or molecules in your body gain or lose electrons. These free radicals build up over time damaging organs and causing them to work less and less efficiently. As touched on in point one, healthy foods – especially colorful fruits and veggies – contain anti-oxidants which may prevent or reduce the damage these free radicals cause, resulting in less oxidative stress – and a more healthy you!
- Better quality sleep – We discussed serotonin in the section on exercise. What we didn’t talk about is that 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract. By eating healthier foods, you increase the number of “good bacteria” in this tract (or at least protect it) which has a direct influence on the amount of serotonin your body produces. Translation: Eating healthy promotes a healthy gut – a healthy gut equals healthy sleep.
- More controlled appetite – Again, as mentioned in the section on exercise, our friend serotonin also plays a role in appetite control. So by eating healthy, the same thing that aids your sleep also help you to control feelings of hunger. Eating healthy is kind of a virtuous circle!
- Less mood swings – Our diets are loaded with carbohydrates and refined sugar is often hidden as an additive in the foods we eat. The reality is that ALL carbohydrates we consume are turned into sugar in our bodies. In fact, we consume so much sugar in various forms that our bodies have a hard time processing it. This leads to spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels that wreak havoc with our systems. These peaks and valleys in blood sugar levels can cause mood swings ranging from irritability to anxiety to fatigue.
- Less pain – Sometimes the effects of inflammation can include feelings of physical pain. A side effect of lowering our inflammation is the effect of reducing feelings of chronic pain.
What does this mean for you?
Honestly, I think Harvard says it best in their article “Your brain on food“:
Start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel — not just in the moment, but the next day. Try eating a “clean” diet for two to three weeks — that means cutting out all processed foods and sugar. Add fermented foods like kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, pickles, or kombucha. You also might want to try going dairy-free — and some people even feel that they feel better when their diets are grain-free. See how you feel. Then slowly introduce foods back into your diet, one by one, and see how you feel.
When my patients “go clean,” they cannot believe how much better they feel both physically and emotionally, and how much worse they then feel when they reintroduce the foods that are known to enhance inflammation. Give it a try!
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So what do you think? Have you traveled the path of healthy eating and noticed any of these changes in your life? See anything I’ve left out? Let me know in the comments below.
The American Psychological Association – The Exercise Effect
Harvard Health Publishing – Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food
The Anxiety And Depression Association Of America – Physical Activity Reduces Stress