How to keep mentally well with diet and exercise

Welcome to The Lounge!  This week the theme is Food and I have a guest post from Kylie Ofiu about how she uses diet and exercise to manage her mental health. 

Before I start, I want to be clear that I don’t think diet and exercise should replace medication or professional help completely. They do have a significant effect on your mental health, but since conditions vary greatly, it is always best to use medication if needed and continue to get professional help.

I have overcome Borderline Personality Disorder. I have had issues with anxiety, depression and ADHD all my life. My psychologist said he prefers to refer to me now as having an ADHD brain. I think very fast, a million ideas in a split second, I’m fidgety and, as friends and family like to say, I have ‘quirks’, but this is all in a positive manner. My quirks work well for me and are a positive thing. It has not always been this way and it’s been a long road to get here.

I have been on and off anti depressants since I was 16. I have had to use sleep medication at one point, started seeing a psychiatrist when I was 16 and first attempted suicide at 16. I am ecstatic to say that through psychological help, learning more about myself and how different things effect me, I generally don’t have issues. Life isn’t perfect though and I know things may change in the future. As I learnt more about myself, I found it very interest to see the impact what I was eating and how I exercised had on my mood and my ability to cope.

Here is what I have learnt:

  • Certain foods trigger chemical reactions in our body

I found caffeine is shocking for me. I was raised not drinking tea or coffee and have discovered if I have anything that is heavily caffeinated I will be on edge, emotional, angry and frustrated for up to 4 days after.

Some food dyes and preservatives impact on our mood and food intolerances are more common than you might think. The food we eat now is not the same as it was years ago.

One thing I did was an elimination diet, (from my doctor) then slowly introduced foods and monitored my reactions, my feelings and my skin. It was easy from this to determine which foods I should avoid, which I can have in moderation and which I can eat plenty of. When I eat foods I shouldn’t, both my mind and body suffer. When I stick to a cleaner lifestyle my mind is clearer.

Ensuring I had plenty of natural fats such as nuts, avocado and coconut oils has been just as important as fruits, vegetables and lean meats.  We often worry about fatty foods, but learning about good fats and eating them goes a long way in maintaining mental health.

  • Moderation is key

I have been known to binge eat, where I will gorge on foods such as chocolate which leave me feeling physically and mentally unwell. I try not to eliminate too many foods or ban my self other than foods I have an intolerance to (such as wheat for me). Instead, I focus on eating healthy most of the time and allowing myself an occasional treat. I am selective on what treats I have though, because I now know which foods set me off. If I eat that food as a tasty treat, it is not worth it if the long term effects are negative mental health.

  • Mindset

I don’t view how I eat as a diet or that I am depriving myself. I am making lifestyle choices, which improve my mental health, my physical health and my life.

Making good food choices means my mind is clearer, I can make better choices and I notice quickly if I feel off and can take measures to protect my mental health such as taking time out for myself if needed, reassessing what I am eating, doing some exercise, spending time with friends or whatever it is I need to recharge and stay mentally healthy.

With everything you do, do it with the mindset of being healthy. By cutting out caffeine, wheat and other foods that trigger me, I am not missing out, I am living a fuller life.

  • Find the right exercise

Exercise doesn’t have to be a gym class or running for a hour a day. Find the exercise that works for you. I happen to love rock climbing, but the exercise that helped me the most, when I was really struggling was actually pole dancing. I did it a few times a week with a friend. My strength and muscle tone improved faster than any other exercise I had ever done plus every 8 weeks I knew a whole new routine. It gave me confidence and was something I looked forward to. There are classes with lots of mums too, which I liked and did not feel out of place in.

I love to run as well. Running outside is great because you get the fresh air too but I preferred on a treadmill at home because I could fit it in any time.

Yoga, pilates, water aerobics, Zumba, gym classes, boxing, swimming, bikeriding, dance, rock climbing or teams sports such as netball, soccer, basketball or football are all great forms of exercise but are very different. Find what works for you, do free trial classes and ask others what exercises they enjoy to find your groove.

I’ll be honest – if I don’t exercise enough, I am a grumpy lady! I love to use running as a way to clear my head, boxing to smash things out if I am frustrating and dance for my confidence.

  • Supplements and vitamins

I started taking a few supplements and vitamins at times too including probiotics, vitamin E, evening primrose oil and a multi B vitamin. Since I was a teenager I have found these help. I have had blood tests at various times to see if I am deficient in anything and changed my eating habits if necessary, but I still found an extra boost of those mentioned helped too.

  • Have a back up plan

I can forget to eat if I get too involved in something or too depressed. I keep protein shakes on hand for this reason. If I can’t stomach the thought of eating something, I can usually still drink. It takes less than a minute to make a shake and depending on my mood, I may blend in fruit, chia and other things to get maximum benefits from the drink to help me.

Having a menu plan for what I would eat and drink helps maintain a healthy lifestyle. Making food ahead of time to keep in the fridge or freezer helps you stick to it when you don’t have much time or feel low as well.

Always have a back up plan so you don’t end up reaching for food and drink that adversely affect you.

By eating the right foods and exercising, after having professional help, I have not needed medication for some time and in 2013, my psychologist said I don’t need to see him anymore. I learnt how to change my thinking and learnt about my mind and body’s reaction to foods, exercise and certain environments. It takes time to learn about food, healthy choices, discover the exercise you like and to implement a support network but it is worth it.

How have you found diet and exercise impacts your mental health?


Kylie Ofiu blogs about ways to make and save money on her site, as well as sharing pieces of her life, including aspects of mental health, homelessness, domestic violence and ways to overcome obstacles.

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