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Understanding the effects of a healthy lifestyle on mental health

Note: This post was written by the team of The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) at Penn State College of Medicine as part of a first-person blog about their work. Learn more about the group here.


May is National Mental Health Month.

May 3, 2021Penn State College of Medicine News

First developed in 1949, Mental Health Month is focused on reducing stigma, increasing awareness of mental health conditions and bringing tools and education to promote wellness for everyone. Mental health support is more important now than ever, and organizations such as Mental Health America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness can help. Reducing stigma means more awareness and more conversations and better healthy relationships with the people we love, as well as our own well-being.

What is mental health?

Several areas comprise mental health, including one’s social, emotional and psychological well-being. Lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise and stress reduction can all have a significant impact on improving one’s mental health.

How can a healthy lifestyle help?

A healthy lifestyle may help prevent the onset or worsening of mental health conditions. Several aspects of a healthy lifestyle can improve mental health, including changes in diet and physical activity. Some helpful resources outlining healthy eating choices and changes were featured in the March The ONE Group blog outlining National Nutrition Month. See those tips here.

How does exercise help?

Getting the recommended amount of exercise can lead to beneficial changes in mood, anxiety and depression.

Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, stress, depression and negative mood, and by improving cognitive function. Muscle-strengthening activities should be included in an exercise routine, twice a week. This includes yoga, strength training with free weights, resistance band exercises and bodyweight exercises such as pushups, lunges and squats. Aerobic exercises, such as walking, gardening, swimming, running and cycling, have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. One to two hours of exercise per week has been shown to reduce the risk of depression.

Does exercise need to be structured or long?

No! You don’t need a gym membership to make exercise a part of your life. Try an exercise snack! What is that? Exercise snacks are a few minutes of activity spread throughout the day. See the exercise videos available on The ONE Group’s website and choose your favorite exercise to perform for 30 seconds a few times a day. Not ready for that? Why not try a short walk? Even a short burst with a 10-minute brisk walk can increase mental alertness, energy and positive mood. Additionally, as little as 30 minutes of exercise a week may be beneficial to see changes in mood, anxiety and depression.

How do I get started?

Living a healthy lifestyle isn’t always easy, especially during these unique times. Remember, small changes are all you need. Gradually making small changes – like going for a walk, doing an exercise snack or choosing healthier options – can go a long way to ensuring that you focus on regularly adding exercise to your life.

Health benefits of regular exercise

Regular exercise can have profound effects on several aspects of mental health, including:

  • Improved sleep
  • Improvement in mood
  • Prevention or reduction of depression
  • Stress relief
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Increased mental alertness and cognitive function

More from The ONE Group

If you’re having trouble accessing this content, or would like it in another format, please email the Penn State College of Medicine web department.

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