Fitfam - a healthy body, a healthy mind

You can’t open a social media site these days without being bombarded by #Fitfam. The hashtag stands for fit family and is for fitness lovers who support each other to reach their ideal fitness goals. It has faced a backlash of late, with many saying it is just an avenue for people to post images of themselves looking lovely in lycra.

But arising from that is a lot more talk about how ‘clean’ eating, healthy eating basically and exercise can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing, as well as the physical body.

Food and exercise are key to maintaining a healthy body, that’s a given. But how closely linked are both these to maintaining a healthy mind.

There is a growing body of evidence linking diet and mental health. According to the Mental Health Organisation in the UK, research indicates that food plays an important contributing role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression.

Shane Rigney, who specialises in nutrition for a live/work balance, is currently one of the chefs on Pure Results Bootcamp, set up by television presenter Kathryn Thomas.

He also knows first-hand the negative influence that unhealthy eating and having no exercise can have on your mental health, having suffered from depression and anxiety for years.

‘I came into cooking as a profession late but was always very interested in it. I then went on my own fitness journey which included weight loss, eating well for good brain function, and exercising. I’m all about real foods and ignoring fads, food that sustains people in a realistic every day way’.

He explains the simple philosophy behind a balanced diet and its effect on the mind.

‘The brain is one of the biggest organs in the body which controls all of your impulses and actions. People assume that eating well is for physical appearance and physical wellbeing, but you have got to look at the neuroscience of it. The brain is affected massively by the fats that you eat, for clarity, thinking and alertness’.

‘Neural transmitters which are involved in things like depression are actually salved or protected in their cell membrane on a physical level with fatty acid which is commonly found to be lacking in people with mental health problems, so poor diet can be linked to mental health issues. So the more you can actually nourish your body with the right kind of foods the more your brain will be protected’.

He adds that slow releasing sugars are needed for energy and the brain uses a huge amount of physical energy, therefore, if you are not fuelling that well, your brain will not function at its optimum level.

‘I partly would have tried to get a lot more vitamins and minerals into my diet as part of an onslaught to help with my own mood. Leafy veg like kale can lift your mood. Good sugars have an affect on serotonin but if you overdose with simple sugars you can get that reward but it has a negative impact on our body’.

He is quick to point out that he did this in tandem with medication and therapy, something that should never be by-passed when it is needed.

He goes on to say that ironically, while people are at their lowest, they tend to eat very poorly which becomes a vicious circle for the body and mind. A proper balance of basic macronutrients, fats, carbs and proteins propped up by smaller micronutrients, vitamins and minerals is what is needed.

‘If you store excess fat, the body has to fuel and support that fat so that in turn is taking away from things like your liver and kidney function. You’re more likely to have things like diabetes and your body is left feeling run down and sluggish and it’s taking away nutrients from your brain function’.

‘Also when you’re not eating the right kind of macronutrients, and eating convenience, processed foods, they’re nutritionally vacant except for instantly released sugars.  It’s not going to offer good brain support and has your system running on empty, creating highs and lows in your blood sugars. That can leave you feeling agitated and anxious. It affects your adrenal function which is going to produce more anxiety hormones like cortisol’.

‘So a bowl of cereal in the morning for breakfast, a white bread sandwich with ham and cheese, a coffee, an apple and a packet of crisps for lunch and a spaghetti bolognese for dinner is a nutritionally vacant day. It’s cyclical and if you have that kind of a day you’ll probably have a restless sleep that night’.

Pure Results Personal trainer James Brennan also purveys the benefits of exercise for mental wellbeing.

‘For people coming from high stress environments, it’s a great stress reliever. With office jobs, gym is a necessity immediately after work. It helps improve sleeping patterns and gives a natural energy boost. People with a typical 9 to 5 job can come out feeling refreshed and a lot livelier after exercising’.

‘Stress tends to tense up muscles, your shoulders become elevated and blood pressure rises. After exercising, the brain releases endorphins and the blood pressure tends to come down and the muscle relaxes. The serotonin release is a natural high. You get a clear focus on what you’re doing afterwards’.

He says two of the negative impacts of not exercising are the seclusion people feel and having no release from stress.

“If the person is fixated on a certain problem there is no release from it. Exercise is a diversion. Having your own space, even to go for a walk to clear your head gets the body to relax, giving the brain oxygen and protein. It’s a vicious circle, when the smallest problem becomes a bigger problem,” he says.

Obesity causes numerous physical illnesses but with the growth of social media and how a person is supposed to look, can cause depression too.

‘Low self-esteem is a huge factor and things like Instagram and Facebook can push people further into it as they try the quick fixes as opposed to a balanced diet with exercise. The can tend to become reclusive, comfort eating and don’t want to go to gym’ he says.

To get started, he advises people to go small. ‘Get out, even on your own, for a long walk, just to get the heart rate up. Get a friend to go with you and you might be able to confide in someone as you’re exercising. Walking clubs are popping up everywhere and people tend to chat over a walk instead of tea and biscuits, that’s a good way to open up’.