The Connection Between Fitness, Nutrition, & Mental Health

Cristina Chan, F45 Recovery Athlete, CES, CPT
Ashleigh Kidd, F45 Challenge Dietitian, RD, LDN
November 2023

Welcome to Week 6 Challengers! Congratulations, you’re almost to the finish line! As you continue to gain insights into your recovery & performance, let’s take a closer look at the impacts fitness and nutrition has on your mental health. 

The positive impact fitness has on mental health

Self care goes beyond face masks and spa days. In the era of mental health struggles, lifestyle modifications like adding exercise or keeping an exercise routine can improve overall health and quality of life. You’ve probably heard that exercise supplies the body with its own natural endorphins but it also improves mental health by potentially reducing anxiety & depression while improving mood stability, self-esteem and cognitive function. These improvements in mood are proposed to be caused by exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain and on the physiologic reactivity to stress. This physiologic influence is mediated by several regions of the brain, including the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which generates fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which plays an important part in memory formation as well as in mood and motivation.

What does that mean in real life terms? For example, meditative movement like stretching and yoga has been shown to alleviate depressive symptoms. This is a type of movement in which you pay close attention to your bodily sensations, position in space, and gut feelings (such as subtle changes in heart rate or breathing) as you move. Changing your posture, breathing, and rhythm can all change your brain, thereby reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, and leading to a feeling of well-being. When creating a habit around these types of movements, you can self-soothe and train the body, like any other muscle, to develop a stronger connection.

Exercise can be a simple go-to remedy when you are too exhausted to use thought control strategies such as focusing on the positive, or looking at the situation from another angle. Movement can come to the rescue. Going on a meditative walk outside by yourself, or getting a sweat session with a friend, you may gain access to a back door to the mental changes that you desire without having to “psych yourself” into feeling better.

While exercise & certain aspects of fitness may improve mental health, it’s most important to consult with your medical provider if you are struggling with your mental health.

The impacts of nutrition on mental health

  • The food, brain, & gut connection:
    • One of the most important things we can do for our mental health when it comes to nutrition is consuming enough energy. Skipping meals, heavily restricting, and consuming well under our needs will ensure that we’re not getting the nutrients we need for optimal health, including brain function. Almost 60% of our brain structure is made up of fats. Essential Fatty Acids are crucial for our bodies (and brain) to function at it’s best, and these MUST come from our diet, as our body does not make these fatty acids. The rest of the brain is made up of a combination of protein, carbohydrates, water, and salts. 
    • It’s not only important that we consume enough energy, but a balance of macro & micro nutrients. Learn how to balance your plate for nutrition & satisfaction here.
    • Supporting a healthy gut is also key to brain health. There is a link between the gut and brain called the gut-brain-axis, and studies have shown that inflammation and some gastrointestinal issues have been linked to mental health illnesses including anxiety & depression. So what can we do? Eat a variety of both insoluble & soluble high fiber foods, incorporate fermented foods, and consult with your medical provider about starting a pro- and/or prebiotic. 
  • Other nutrients to consider for your mental health:
    • B Vitamins, Vitamin D, Iron, Selenium, Magnesium, Zinc, Potassium, Omega 3, Choline
      • Eating a balanced and varied diet consisting of lean meats & fish, fruits & veggies, healthy fats, & whole grains will ensure you’re consuming a variety of nutrients. If you suspect you’re not getting the nutrients you need, consult with your medical provider to determine what foods you can add to your diet or if supplementation is necessary.
  • Mindful eating:
    • In a nutshell, mindful eating is a way of eating that focuses on our awareness and experience of the food we’re eating. Practicing mindfulness can not only help us get in tune with our hunger and fullness cues but it has also been found to increase our overall level of food satisfaction because we are eating foods that are enjoyable and nourishing to us. Practicing mindful eating behaviors can help to:
      • Decreased food guilt
      • Increased consumption of nourishing and nutrient dense foods
      • Less overeating (and binging)
      • Less under-eating
      • Increased confidence around food (i.e. saying saying yes/no to foods without guilt or pressure)
      • Learning to identify your hunger and fullness cues
      • Increased enjoyment and pleasure at meal times
    • Learn more about mindful eating here.

Mental health activities to feel better in the gym:

Exercises that are personally helpful in improving my mental health:

  • Mobility/stretching through tension in my body
  • Hiking, exposure to nature
  • Surfing or provide surf therapy lessons
  • Teach or take an F45 class 
  • Barefoot beach walks, feeling grounded and connected


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