World Mental Health Day takes place Oct. 10, so now is a great time to re-evaluate your mental fitness. If you want to get the best results from your day job, your interactions with others, and those countless hours of sweating it out in the gym, it’s essential to recognize that a fit mind can have positive physical outcomes.
Muscle & Fitness spoke with Jasmine “Coach Jaz” Graham, an ACE-certified personal trainer and Institute for Integrative Nutrition health coach, to find out ways in which those who are starting their fitness journey, through to elite athletes, can also take better care of their mental health.
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1) Avoid de-motivating foods
While we each have our own individual intolerances and preferences around different ingredients, there are some foods that are likely to interfere with our mental performance. “Across the board, processed foods that are high in sugar and bad fats are first on my list of what to look out for,” says Graham. “Foods high in sugar give you a boost of energy immediately due to a glucose spike and then that boost decreases quickly, leading to diminished motivation. If you have a diet that’s highly processed and includes a lot of refined carbohydrates like white bread, muffins, white pasta, French fries, sugary snacks and chips with little to no vegetables, there is evidence that this can affect your emotional wellbeing and may cause depression, challenging your ability to feel energized enough to train.
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2) Eat foods that fuel positive mental health
“My motto is: ‘Food is fuel,’” says Graham. “We need to honor our body and feed it well so that it can perform at the optimal level required. Choose whole foods that energize. These are my top five foods that offer vitality. Not only can they be eaten individually but they all work well together for a supercharged meal.”
Sweet potato: The fiber content slows down digestion, therefore providing energy prior to, and during your workout.
Eggs: Eggs contain leucine, which help elevate energy levels.
Quinoa: This whole grain is high in protein, carbs, and fiber, delivering a slow and steady stream of energy.
Avocados: A major source of healthy fats that also contains fiber for energy balance.
Leafy green vegetables: Vegetables like spinach and kale are excellent sources of iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and numerous vitamins that offer vitality.
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3) Stay hydrated
“Our bodies are 60% water, with the brain processing the highest percentage; between 80% to 85%,” says Graham. “Proper hydration is a fundamental part of any successful wellness regimen.”
Proper hydration helps the brain to run efficiently, so start your day with a glass of water. “Warm water with lemon first thing in the morning gives the extra boost of vitamin C that improves immunity, assists with stress management, and helps you feel centered,” says Graham. “This is a great option for anyone trying to limit caffeine consumption too.”
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4) Regulate your alcohol intake
“Alcohol is a depressant that affects the brain negatively,” says Graham. “At first, dopamine is released, and you feel euphoric with no inhibitions, but this is followed by a decline that can leave you feeling withdrawn and sad. Studies show that continued moderate to excessive use of alcohol has been linked to depression, anxiety, brain shrinkage, loss of memory, blackouts, poor decision making, and mood swings. Dysthymia is another condition related to excessive alcohol consumption with symptoms that include issues with concentrating, sleeping, eating, low self-esteem, paranoia, and hallucinations.”
While research suggests that even moderate drinking is risky, there are ways to regulate your intake for those that still wish to indulge. “Some of the better options are red wine because of the polyphenols, and the phenolic acid in champagne makes for a better choice as well,” says Graham. “Vodka, gin, and tequila are clear liquors that are low in sugar and are better mixed with low sugar options like seltzer with a twist of fruit.”
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5) Exercise to strengthen your mind (and body)
“Exercise elevates dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates our mood, emotions, and energy levels,” says Graham. “Decreased dopamine has been linked to psychosis, schizophrenia, and ADD. Serotonin is also released through exercise, and this neurotransmitter controls mood, socialization skills, memory, digestion, sleep, and sexual desire. Decreased serotonin can cause insomnia, anxiety, and depression.”
Aerobic exercises like power walking, running, cycling, rowing, and swimming are the best ways to activate dopamine and serotonin secretion, explains Graham. If you don’t feel like leaving the house, there are still ways to be active. “When at home, play your favorite tunes while you sing, dance, and clean your home,” she says. “If you are pressed for time and need a boost, make up a superset of cardio exercises that include jumping jacks, jump squats, mountain climbers, touchdowns, and speed skaters with 30 seconds on and 15 seconds recovery for as many rounds as you want. It is your personal choice based on whatever evokes joy and improves your mood.”
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6) Focus on you
“Whether you are at the gym or scrolling through social media, you are exposed to people at all fitness levels,” says Graham. “It is important to remember that your focus should be on fueling and nurturing your own body. You do not know that person’s true lifestyle and how they are able to maintain their body type. It’s fine to appreciate another person’s gains and physique, but it’s not productive to compare yourself to that person and diminish your own efforts.”
Coach Jaz recommends positive affirmations to start your day, or before you go to the gym. Practicing gratitude is also helpful because when you list the things you are grateful for, you can put the negative feelings into perspective.
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7) Set sustainable goals
Coach Jaz believes that SMART goals are a great way for her clients to work toward their fitness goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant and Time based).
“The important thing to remember is that there is no trial and error, but rather trial and revise,” says Graham. “Tracking weekly performance and progress helps identify what is working, what is not working and what must be tweaked. Having a network that supports you on your wellness journey is also helpful. This can be a gym community, virtual online community and anyone that motivates you. Build a tribe!”
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8) Stay well rested and recharged
“With demanding schedules that include work, school runs, workouts, and socializing; sleep is the great equalizer that allows us to start each day refreshed and invigorated,” says Graham. “Studies show that sleep deprivation has a negative effect on overall wellbeing including irritability, fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, and depression.
“The CDC recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for adults depending on age,” adds Graham. “Our bodies regenerate during sleep, releasing growth hormones, repairing cells, improving brain health, stabilizing cardiovascular health and blood pressure, reducing stress and inflammation.” Sweet dreams!