Eating Smart and Moving More for Mental Wellness

— Written By Ashley McRae and last updated by
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Would you believe me if I told you healthy eating and physical activity can impact your mental health? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.” The CDC also talks in depth of the immediate benefits on how physical activity affects brain health.

In the Adult Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), a huge component of our work is centered around encouraging participants to “Eat Smart, Move More” for wellness; both sharing equal importance in mental health. This month, we celebrate National Mental Health Awareness. Even though EFNEP’s mission does not solely focus on mental health, our curriculum does a wonderful job of showing participants how these topics are closely related to healthy living.

So, what does it look like when we “Eat Smart”? Eating smart basically challenges us to make smarter choices when making purchasing decisions for ourselves or families. When we “Eat Smart”, we choose to not buy those items loaded with sugar, and avoid those fatty foods and items that have been over processed. In some of the EFNEP lessons, there are opportunities to discuss how what we consume affects us mentally. For example, too much caffeine can trigger anxiety in some individuals, whereas diets promoting eating high-fat dairy or fried foods could contribute to depression over time. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says, “…food – along with other factors – plays an important contributing role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems…”

Now, “Moving More” is always the hard part. The thought of planning to be more physically active is a mental work-out at times. However, physical activity is important not only for maintaining a healthy weight, but a healthy mind as well. Research shows moderate to vigorous physical activity has instant effects on the brain, which is why after an intense workout you may feel more relaxed or performing stretches before bed helps you to sleep more peacefully and think more clearly.

Adults need at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. In the Adult EFNEP classes, participants are shown various ways to incorporate physical activity into their daily routines. One way we suggest is gardening, which is a great form of exercise. Gardening allows you to strengthen your muscles and requires continual movement. Aside from that, gardening is very therapeutic and a great way to get you outdoors. Always keep in mind what works best for you. That’s the great thing about moving more, you can get as creative as you like.