What a year! COVID-19 has had the most significant impact on our lives since the last world war. Some would argue it’s been even more impactful. One thing is for sure; the consequences have been very damaging for individuals and businesses alike. We’ve seen increases in stress, worry and anxiety. And this has been exacerbated by a more sedentary lifestyle; overall, we have become less healthy and more overweight. These changes have further added to stress by causing people to worry about their health and weight. Does this ring true? Would you like to be feeling better about yourself?
If you saw our earlier post on why people feel down about themselves, you’ll know that people worry about their weight. They worry about their health, their impact on others and, in particular, they experience a loss of confidence and lower self-esteem. In short, they feel down about themselves.
The good news is that there are plenty of natural, healthy things you can do to help you feel better. We’ve distilled it down into ten steps to feeling better about yourself.
1. Make exercise part of your lifestyle
The first step to feeling better about yourself, is to develop an exercise habit.
The research shows that exercise helps, not just with mental help, but with mental illness. It can help with symptoms of depression, general anxiety disorder, schizophrenia and even psychosis.
It doesn’t matter what age or gender you are, the severity of your symptoms, the sessions’ duration, other whether it’s cardio, weight training or yoga. In the research, none of these variables made a difference – improvements were seen regardless.
What does make a difference is the frequency of exercise and the duration of your commitment, that is, the length of the programme. You must exercise regularly and keep it up if you want to see long term and permanent benefits to your mental health. In short, you need to make it a lifestyle habit.
Why is that necessary? Increased cerebral blood flow triggers increases in the number of blood vessels, neurons and synapses within the brain. It also causes better availability of neurotransmitters. All those changes enable your brain to function more efficiently, with concomitant improved mental health.
Exercise isn’t just an endorphin rush; it causes permanent structural changes in the brain that improve mental health.
2. Do cardio
Moderate-intensity steady-state cardiovascular exercise is supreme when it comes to strengthening the heart, lungs and vascular system. This modality will most effectively stimulate cerebral blood flow and all the beneficial changes that go with it.
In addition to benefits on the brain, you develop better stamina, enabling you to feel more energised. And you’ll have better blood sugar control so you can keep your carbohydrate-fuelled brain chemistry on a more even keel.
3. Do weight training
When it comes to improvements in ‘the self’, weight training is highly effective.
You get to push yourself out of your comfort zone many times in every session. You get used to it. You become comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s great for mental fortitude.
Not only that, but in every session, you get just a little bit stronger and a little more capable. Time after time, you push to beat your previous scores. The sense of achievement and the resulting improvements in self-efficacy are quick to realise.
As the programme continues, you begin to believe in yourself once more. ‘Yes, I CAN do it’, you say. Your self-belief improves dramatically.
As your strength improves, you become more capable in everyday life. As your posture changes, you are able to hold yourself more confidently. And as your shape changes, you stop being self-conscious and start to restore pride in your appearance. In short, your self-confidence improves.
This is all fuelled and supported by beneficial changes in your brain’s structure and function.
Weight training needs to be coached, unlike cardio. We are fully aware of the benefits of weight training, both for weight loss and mental health. That’s why our clients supervise their own cardio and why, in our personal training studio in Northampton, we only do weight training and posture correction.
4. Consume essential fats
The dry weight of the brain is 60% fat, and much of it is highly polyunsaturated. A good deal of that is composed of essential omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, which help the brain to be flexible and adaptable.
Your body cannot make omega 3 and 6. That’s why they are known as essential fats. You must consume them in your diet.
Research also says that omega 3 and 6 are needed in equal amounts in the brain for it to be healthy and function well. That also means you need to consume them in your diet in the same proportions.
Over the past few decades, as a nation, we have consumed far more omega 6 than omega 3. This is due to the prevalence of refined vegetable oils in our diets. This imbalance may be a factor in the increase of mental health issues within the same timeframe.
The solution is to get more omega 3. Oily fish is a great source, as are flaxseed oil, rapeseed oil, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and soya beans. The government recommends oily fish at least twice a week.
5. Avoid or reduce bad fats
Trans fat, otherwise known as hydrogenated vegetable oil, is one to avoid altogether. Always check food labels for either of these terms.
Trans fats are made by pumping hydrogen into polyunsaturated oils. That makes them solid at room temperature and, for that reason, they are added to processed foods to create the right textures.
Because they originate from polyunsaturated fats, they occupy the same spaces in the brain as essential fats. This blocks some critical functions of the brain. Research suggests that trans fats are damaging. Avoid highly processed crisps, cakes, biscuits and ready meals – always check the food label.
Saturated fat increases the rigidity of the brain, reducing its flexibility and adaptability. There is a strong correlation between saturated fat intake and diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The government recommends keeping saturated fat intake below 10% of calories. It’s challenging to eliminate saturated fat as it’s present in smaller amounts in lots of healthy foods, and some types of saturated fat may be beneficial. But, I would reduce it below 10% of calories. After all, we can make the stuff! A food label will give you the fat breakdown; always check.
6. Get a wide variety of fruit and vegetables
The research says that the most significant benefit to mental health comes from a healthy intake of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In particular, fruit and vegetables contain a vast variety of beneficial nutrients that include thousands of different phytonutrients.
First, the nutrients provided by fruit and vegetables will help your brain to function well, with optimal levels of neurotransmitters.
Second, the antioxidants in fruit and veg will help protect the brain from damaging free-radicals.
Make sure your diet includes foods high in antioxidants such as fresh berries, kale, spinach, broccoli, prunes, raisins and beets. Also try to consume lots of variety, with every colour you can find – purple, red, orange, yellow, green, white. Colour is an indication of the nutrient content. So, the more colour you get, the wider the variety of nutrients you will have available to improve your brain chemistry.
7. Be careful of processing
As well as there being foods that will nourish your brain, there are foods to avoid.
Anything that is highly processed will contain food additives. It is estimated that the average UK citizen consumes around 4 kg of additives per year. Some of these are known to be damaging. For example, there is a clear link between processed meat and cancer. But there are many bizarre ingredients in many processed foods, such as sweets, flavoured crisps, instant noodles, cakes and biscuits.
As an example, look up a well-known brand’s assorted biscuit selection box on your supermarket website. Check out the ingredients of every biscuit. I don’t know what half that stuff is, and I certainly don’t want to put it into my stomach where it can be absorbed into my bloodstream. Have a look at the list of ingredients on whatever you buy and decide whether you want to digest them.
Processed foods also tend to be low in nutrients and high in oxidants. Net, they are likely to reduce your health, rather than improve it. Food should not just be ‘refuelling’; it should also be ‘nourishment’. Choose your foods wisely and ensure the nutrient content is high. The best way to do this is to consume unprocessed food; food that has had very little done to it before it reaches you.
Also consider buying local organic produce if you can afford it. A lot of commercially produced fruit and veg comes with residues of pesticides, and much of it has travelled thousands of miles. Exposure to light, heat and oxygen can reduce the content of some nutrients.
With everything you put in your mouth, aim to nourish your brain and avoid anything that will damage it.
8. Keep alcohol to a minimum
Alcohol can help you relax, and it can reduce your inhibitions. But it is not your friend when it comes to mental health.
Research shows the very clear link between alcohol consumption and mental health disorders. And it’s dose-dependent. The more you consume, the more likely you are to suffer from mental health problems.
The government’s safe limit on alcohol is 14 units per week. Other sources suggest there is no safe limit. If you can keep well below 14 units per week, even better.
9. Cut your intake of stimulants
Stimulants trick you! They produce an immediate flood of neurotransmitters, making you feel good for a while. But with chronic consumption, they reduce your receptiveness to neurotransmitters. That means, when you don’t get your stimulants, your brain will not be working well. You may feel very sleepy, have low energy levels or experience low mood. It’s easy to become addicted to stimulants as you try beat off the slumps in between doses. The more you consume, the more it will blunt your receptiveness to those all-important neurotransmitters.
Obvious stimulants are caffeine and nicotine. But chocolate also contains feel-good chemicals. Try to wean yourself off these or reduce your intake to low levels.
Less obvious is sugar. Sugar will make you feel great for a while, and give you energy. But once it’s been digested, not only will you experience a slump, irritability and low mood, you’ll also be ravenously hungry due to low blood sugar.
This combination of craving and hunger can lead to poor eating behaviours and weight gain. It will reduce your blood sugar control and can lead to type 2 diabetes.
If you saw our post last week, you’ll know that sugar has a broad definition: anything that quickly raises blood sugar. Try to choose food that is slow to digest – that has a low glycemic index. Good choices are whole grains, legumes, fruit and veggies. They also happen to be health-giving, so you’ll get lots of benefits from choosing these over-processed high-GI foods.
10. Lose weight, or avoid getting overweight
The last step to feeling better about yourself is to control your weight. If there’s one sure-fire way to reduce your self-esteem, it’s to put on weight and feel embarrassed about how you look.
I know there are some positive social changes taking place, with the vetoing of fat shamers, for example. But that rarely changes the way people feel about themselves. In my experience, it doesn’t matter how accepting society is of overweight and obesity; people still worry they are being judged and discriminated against. They don’t want to be overweight. Being overweight impacts their self-esteem and confidence.
The solution is to eat unprocessed, fibre rich food. Not only will you feed your mind, you’ll find it more difficult to overeat. Combine that with exercise and you’ll be on a much better path.
There’s a psychological basis to feeling better about yourself. But there’s also a strong physiological influence. It’s noteworthy that the rise in obesity has occurred with similar timing to increases in mental health issues. This has also coincided with growth in the consumption of processed food and increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
Of course, the antidote is the reverse of these cultural changes: eat unprocessed food and exercise. Your brain will function more efficiently and you’ll feel better about yourself as a result. You’re likely also to lose weight, helping with the psychological side of feeling better about yourself.
It’s been a tough year, and mental health issues are on a high. But we’re about to enter the New Year. What better time to make some changes to your lifestyle and improve the way you feel about yourself? Who knows, if you get your lifestyle right, you may feel better about everything!