Disclaimer: This article should not substitute professional medical advice. When starting a new diet or exercise plan, always consult your physician first. In relation to mental/behavioral health, please consult a licensed medical professional before starting or stopping any type of medication or making any lifestyle changes.

  • Making small behavioral changes in reducing factors such as smoking, poor nutrition, and physical activity will likely improve your general well-being.
  • Studies have shown that diets that include healthy, whole foods can improve mental and physical well-being.
  • Self-care is an important factor in improving and maintaining your overall health. Arm yourself with your own Wellness Toolkit to manage your physical, emotional, and mental health. 

Improving your physical health is important in reducing the incidence of chronic conditions such as diabetes Type II, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease, but can it also play a role in improving your mental health? 

The life expectancy of people struggling with mental illness is significantly reduced by one to two decades compared with those who address and treat their mental health. Additionally, those who are overweight and obese have been reported to have an increase in depressive syndromes compared to those at an otherwise healthy weight. 

The term, “mental health”, once a taboo subject, has now made its way to the main stage and is one of the most discussed topics in healthcare. Your primary care doctor has likely discussed mental health and depression with you at your annual checkup. Your company’s wellness plan most likely has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that includes confidential assessments and counseling services.

Depression and Increased Weight

The association between obesity and depressive disorders is common and, unfortunately, a cyclical trap. Perceived negative body image and insecurities can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as disordered eating, low self-esteem, and increased mental stress. 

Similarly, studies have been performed to identify whether psychological illnesses, such as depression, can cause those individuals at an otherwise healthy weight to have an increased chance of becoming overweight or obese. Depressive symptoms can negatively impact your physical health through the development of eating disorders and increased isolation, which can lead to decreased physical activity. 

Causes of weight gain

American adults continue to pack on the pounds year after year. The National Center for Health Statistics indicates that almost 40% of all adults over the age of 20 are considered obese. Additionally, 31.8% of American adults are considered overweight, which means over 70% of our population at a higher risk for developing chronic health conditions. 

In the U.S., you can attribute the rise in obesity to three main issues:

  • Sedentary lifestyle
    Technology is both a blessing and a curse. We can have anything we want delivered to our doorstep and it is affecting our health. Rather than taking a walk to the grocery store or spending an afternoon walking through the mall, we opt for next day delivery and curbside pick-up. 

A 2016 study performed by the Bipartisan Policy Center discovered that Americans averaged just over 6,800 steps per day. To meet the CDC’s recommendation for exercise per day, you should aim for 8,000-10,000 steps per day to reduce health risks. 

  • The Standard American Diet (S.A.D.)
    As with living a sedentary lifestyle, the Standard American Diet is a result of being too busy and wanting things immediately. S.A.D. is how the typical American diet is described and is it ever! It generally consists of a daily intake of processed foods and foods that are high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy saturated fats. 

A 2010 report from the National Cancer Institute found that nine out of ten Americans do not get the recommended daily intake of vegetables per day, and three out of four do not eat a single serving of fruit per day. 

Following a diet rich in whole foods, including fresh fruit, vegetables, and healthy fats like lean meats and olive oil can greatly reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and help maintain a healthy weight. 

  • Genetics
    Science shows that genetics can play a role in weight and body proportion. That said, it does not predict future health unless you let it take control. It is important to know your family history of all health-related issues to take a preventive approach.

Psychological Toll of Gaining Weight

Whether you’ve fallen into the trap of the Standard American Diet or being too sedentary, or perhaps you just can’t get motivated after a long winter, you know that the impact of unhealthy weight gain can begin to stir up feelings of hopelessness. 

Unwanted weight gain almost always leads to negative body image. Body image has been shown to play a significant role in eating and weight disorders and has been linked to depressive behavior. 

Recent studies have found that obese individuals are more body-conscious than those at a healthy weight and that they have a harder time losing weight due to stress. Psychological stress is directly related to increased cortisol levels, which tends to make the body hold on to fat stores. Psychological stress can also increase feelings of anxiety and make individuals feel discouraged to begin eating healthy or exercising. 

While genetics may also play a role in developing depression or increasing your risk of obesity and related chronic illnesses, there are many things you can do each day to reduce your risk. 

Small changes to your normal routine can make a significant impact on your overall mental well-being. Changes can include improving diet, increasing exercise, developing a mindfulness practice, and finding a confidant. 

Depression and Your Physical Health

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. These disorders include Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Major Depressive Disorder. 

Depression is a debilitating and, in severe cases, a life-threatening disease that affects over 16 million people nationwide. The cause of depression is not always known and can arise from biological factors (genetics), individual brain chemistry, certain medications, uncontrolled stress, and inadequate nutrition. 

Mental illness and the incidence of becoming overweight or obese frequently occur together, whether as a result of each other, or simply due to sharing common risk factors: smoking, poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and alcohol consumption. 

Medications prescribed for depression and anxiety disorders have been widely accepted and are very successful at maintaining the mental health of those who suffer from these conditions. A side effect of many of these medications, however, is weight gain. As with genetics, being educated on the possible side effects will help in reducing your risk of, or controlling, weight gain when taking medication. 

It is always a good idea to hire a mental health professional to assist with your mental health journey. These professionals can help identify triggers for your anxiety and depression and will help guide you on a path toward overall wellness. 

Your Personalized Wellness Toolkit

When embarking on any health and wellness journey, it is important to remember that you can’t change everything at once. An unhealthy diet and lack of exercise is a detrimental routine. Creating a new routine will probably be difficult, but by making small, incremental changes, you will improve both your mental and physical health and put yourself on the path to total wellness. 

Start by building your own personalized Wellness Toolkit.

Fill it in with all the things you enjoy, or think you’ll enjoy, about eating well, being active, and thinking positively. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Incorporating Fresh, Whole Foods

There are many diets that make claims to help you lose weight fast. You probably have friends who have been on a certain diet and swear by the results, but when you’ve tried it, nothing seems to work. Just like we all look different on the outside, our bodies are structured differently on the inside. It is important to find something that works for and feels good to you. 

Out of all the so-called “diets”, the acclaimed Mediterranean Diet is a lifestyle diet that holds reign on being among the most ideal to follow. 

The Mediterranean Diet encourages individuals to eat fresh, whole foods. This includes consuming mostly fresh vegetables, fresh fish and lean meats, fresh fruit, and healthy fats such as nuts and olive oils. Studies have shown that diets rich in these foods are linked to a decreased risk of depression.

Increase Movement and Exercise

As mentioned earlier, one reason your body may be holding on to that extra weight could be due to high cortisol levels. Cortisol increases when you are stressed. Stress can derail your exercise routine, diet, and sleep, increasing your chances of becoming overweight or obese. 

The good news? When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, hormones that help reduce pain or stress. 

Just saying the word “exercise” can send people into a panic. But it can be as simple as taking small parts of your day and incorporating movement. Do you normally use the elevator or escalator when it is available? Take the stairs instead. Try using 30 minutes of your lunch hour to go on a walk. You will be surprised at how productive you will be upon returning to your desk!

Practicing Mindfulness

Developing a mindfulness practice can help in identifying triggers of negative behavior or thoughts. As with diet and exercise, your mindfulness practice should be unique to you. 

If sitting quietly and meditating for 20 minutes doesn’t sound exciting to you, don’t do it. Instead, you can try a simple five-minute guided meditation, journaling, or mindful music listening.

There are plenty of guided meditations online and through podcasts. Find one that interests you and give it a shot. The best time to meditate is in the morning just as you wake up, helping to set your intention for the day and accept where you are at in this journey of your life. Intention-setting mindfulness practices have been shown to reduce levels of stress and feelings of anxiety.

Journaling is another great way to tune into who you are. Grab a pen and paper, or even your computer, tablet, or phone, and take a few minutes each morning to write some things down. Start with writing one thing you’re proud of or that makes you happy, one thing that you want to improve upon, and one goal that you want to accomplish that day or that week. 

Finally, mindful listening can help reduce stress by helping you to focus your attention. Instead of turning to the news or your email when you first wake up, grab a cup of coffee or tea and listen to your favorite podcast/music. Put your phone away so you don’t get tempted to scroll through social media, and simply listen to your mind and self. 

Find a Confidant

Finding someone to share your highs and lows can help relieve stress and motivate you to continue in your health journey. Whether it is your spouse, best friend, coworker, or a licensed professional, there is power in vocalizing your thoughts and feelings

This person can help you navigate through those negative emotions by listening and providing words of encouragement. Make a date each week to share your success, discuss your goals, and vent feelings of negativity. 

The great part about sharing your goals with someone else is that you can inspire them to make positive changes, too. Everyone has something that they strive to improve upon, and with a little help from each other, we can make ourselves, and our world, just a little bit better each day. 

Making changes to your daily routine is hard. But by taking small steps to improve physical health through improved diet and increased exercise, it won’t take long to notice positive changes in your mood and behavior. Just remember, you are unique, and you are totally worth it!

**Nicole Pepper is a health and wellness professional with a passion for improving the lives of those around her. She enjoys cooking, baking, running, and likes to balance her obsession with murder mystery shows with Disney movies

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