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Eat the rainbow for better mental health

Every week it seems like there’s a new diet we should all be following. I first became aware of this a few years ago with the explosion of the Atkins diet. Now there’s so many diets to choose from – the Cambridge, paleo, 5:2, cabbage soup, grapefruit, the master cleanse – it’s hard to know where to start and what foods we should and shouldn’t be eating.

A healthy, balanced diet is essential to good physical and mental health. We are all different when it comes to what we like and don’t like to eat, intolerances, allergies and budgets, so one strict diet won’t be suitable for everyone. However, increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables we eat is good for all of us and can help us feel and function better.

How many fruit and vegetables do you eat each day?

In the UK, it’s recommended that we eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day. In Australia, it’s 7 portions (5 vegetables and 2 fruit), whereas in the United States, the recommended amount is 2 servings of fruit and 3 of vegetables.

Whatever, the recommended daily intake, we appear to be struggling to meet it:

With all these facts and figures in mind, this week’s post and activity focuses on a simple way to get more fruit and vegetables into our diets – by making our meals as colourful as possible. The more colours we eat, the greater the potential benefits to our health and wellbeing.

The mental benefits of fruit and vegetables

We now have access to a whole range of fruit and vegetables that spans the colours of the rainbow. Each colour group contains vitamins, fibre and nutrients that contribute to good physical and mental health regardless of whether they are fresh, canned, frozen, juiced or dried. Here are three good reasons to get more of these foods into our diets:

  1. Increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables can increase our psychological wellbeing. Two large scale studies from the UK and Australia found that people who ate more fruit and vegetables were more likely to report feeling happy, improved wellbeing and feeling satisfied with life.
  2. If we eat 2 extra portions of fruit or vegetables a day, our motivation may increase. By increasing our intake of fruit and vegetables just a little, we can have more energy and motivation to take on the day.
  3. Our mood can improve. Increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables we eat can reduce the likelihood of experiencing anxiety and depression. This may have something to do with the amount of vitamin C in fruit and vegetables. Those of us who consume lots of vitamin C every day are less stressed in the face of psychological challenges.

A rainbow of opportunities

We’re now aware of the benefits eating more fruit and vegetables can have for our wellbeing, but how can we get more of them into our diet? After all, the textures and flavours of these foods don’t taste good to all of us.

This week’s task aims to increase our fruit and vegetable intake in a simple way – by eating meals with at least 3 colours in them. Eating rainbow meals (as I like to call them) is an easy way to remember to put more fruit and vegetables into your diet. The table below shows the different coloured fruit and vegetables so you can figure out which ones you like of each colour and start introducing more of them into your meals.

Here’s some suggestions to get you started:

  • Breakfast – porridge with bananas, raspberries and raisins
  • Lunch – baked sweet potato with spinach, tomatoes and sweetcorn
  • Dinner – chilli con carne with red peppers, kale and kidney beans

The rainbow of fruit and vegetables and questions to help you plan your meals are available on the worksheet below. Click the link to download the worksheet. You can fill it in using the ‘fill and sign’ tool or alternatively print it off and fill it in by hand.

If you’d like to share how you got on with this activity, or the impact birthdays have on your wellbeing, please do get in touch 15minutewellbeing@gmail.com

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Bag up your worries and let go of stress

Stress. What a horrible feeling and unfortunately so many of us experience it. Whether it’s work, Brexit, travel, relationships, not being able to switch off or just having too much on our plates, stress is becoming a frequent, unwelcome visitor in our lives. During a typical week, 72% of us feel stressed at some point – this is not good for our wellbeing and frequently feeling stressed can also lead to problems with our mental and physical health.

Let’s change this. April is National Stress Awareness Month, so each 15 minute wellbeing blog post throughout April will focus on how stress affects our wellbeing and provide a range of activities aligned with the seven wellbeing themes to help us feel less stressed and anxious. Stress doesn’t have to be a part of life that we just accept, we can overcome it and feel better within ourselves.

What is stress?

Stress is how our bodies respond to an event or situation that is new, unexpected, threatens us or something that we have little control over. When we experience a stressful event, our bodies produce hormones that put us into ‘fight or flight’ mode. That is, these hormones prepare us to fight the threat, or run away from it.

Sometimes, this response is useful – it can help us respond quickly in high pressure situations and protect ourselves if we need to. If we only experience stressors and stay in fight or flight mode for a short amount of time, then we are unlikely to have any long-term, negative effects. However, if we experience stressful events frequently, or are constantly in fight or flight mode, our resilience to stressors reduces and we feel unable to cope. This leads to us regularly feeling stressed which can have a knock-on effect on our mental and physical health.

Why our lives are so stressful

Whereas our cavemen ancestors were mainly concerned with shelter, food and avoiding predators, a whole host of things can cause us stress in the 21st Century:

  • Work – over two-thirds of people in a national survey felt excessive pressures at work (i.e. having to take on extra work to compensate for staff absences, unpaid overtime) was their main source of stress. This, plus balancing our work and home lives can make us feel overwhelmed.
  • Money – although employment has risen, the amount of money we earn has not increased substantially since the 2008 recession. This means that many of us don’t always have enough money to make ends meet and more than 1 in 5 of us have experienced debt-related stress.
  • Social media – Nearly half (49%) of young people surveyed felt the comparison and constant pressure of keeping up with others on social media was a source of stress.
  • Health – long-term health conditions are a source of stress for over a third of adults.
  • Commuting – as we learnt in last week’s post, lengthy commutes and journey delays can increase the amount of stress and anxiety we experience.
  • Current affairs – a third of us in the UK are stressed about Brexit.

How stress impacts our wellbeing

Stress can have a detrimental effect on our wellbeing. Experiencing lots of stress has been linked with depression and self-harm. In a national survey, 51% of respondents who felt stressed also felt depressed, with even more – 61% – feeling anxious as a result as stress.

Stress and anxiety can become a vicious cycle: stress leading to anxiety and the worrying linked with anxiety resulting in us feeling even more stressed. Rumination (constant worrying) is one of the strongest predictors of negative wellbeing. If we can reduce how much we ruminate, then we can start to overcome stress and improve our wellbeing.

Common, unhelpful ways we cope with stress

We have all developed our own ways of coping with stress, some of these are helpful whereas many are only short-term fixes. To alleviate stress we may eat unhealthily, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or take drugs. While these can provide a momentary distraction from our worries, they don’t help us overcome them.

Bag up those worries

This week’s activity uses a short and cathartic exercise to help you overcome the stressors and worries you may be currently experiencing. It involves writing, drawing or sticking things that represent your worries in the bag on the worksheet and then scrunching or ripping it up. The purpose of going through this process can help you let go of your worries and realise that you have some control over your worries, they don’t have to control you.

Click the link below to download the worksheet. It’s recommended for this exercise that you print it off so you can scrunch it and rip it! If you don’t have a printer, draw your own bag and follow the instructions on the worksheet.

If bagging up your worries has helped improve your wellbeing, please do get in contact and share your story!

I share wellbeing-related research, news and stories on twitter and Instagram inbetween weekly blog posts so do follow @15minwellbeing on both platforms to keep up to date.

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If we feel so good after exercising, why do we lose motivation?

It’s been widely reported that exercise is not only good for our physical health, it can benefit our mental health too. Yet many of us find it hard to maintain our motivation to exercise. Even when we have good intentions to exercise, they don’t always last.

Each year, one third of people in the UK make a New Year’s resolution to get fitter, yet 63% of us break our resolutions. On average, two thirds (66%) of New Year’s resolutions last for one month or less. If your exercise and fitness goals have fallen by the wayside, you’re not alone.

If you’re struggling to find the motivation to exercise, it could be that you haven’t found the right physical activity for you. Not getting the mental high from working out that you’re after? Then maybe it’s time to change your exercise routine. This week’s blog post can help you find the best exercise for you and your wellbeing.

Theme 4: Physical health

The focus of today’s post is exercise and how choosing the right type of exercise for you can help improve your mental health. As we progress through the blog posts each week, you will discover that this theme is about more than just exercise. Other elements of our physical health – what we eat, how we sleep and self-soothing activities – can all impact our health and wellbeing.

Often, when we think about exercising we think about long runs, intensive gym sessions and ‘no pain no gain’. The good news is that physical exercise does not need to be vigorous to have a positive impact on our mental health. Even better, just 10 minutes of exercise is enough to elevate mood. Those of us who struggle to make time for exercise can still improve our wellbeing by incorporating a brief amount of physical activity into our lives. Over time, 15 minute wellbeing will introduce a range of physical activities that can be completed in 15 minutes or less and enhance our wellbeing.

Why is exercise so good for our wellbeing?

Exercising can distract us from our negative thoughts, improve our perceived ability to cope with stressful situations and increase our sense of control. Physical activity can also improve our quality of life, mood, self-perception, social interaction and life satisfaction.

Exercise can also help us cope with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Aerobic and anaerobic exercise (such as resistance training) are effective treatments for depression. Regular exercise may help prevent people prone to feelings of anxiety from panicking when they experience symptoms such as increased heart rate and sweating. These physical reactions occur during exercise so regular exposure to them through physical activity could reduce the frequency of panic attacks.

Making small changes to the amount of exercise we do – even if we don’t do much at all – can enhance our wellbeing.  For example, going for a walk can help us feel good. If we go for a walk with someone else, it has the added benefit of increasing our connection with others.

If we feel better after exercising, why is it so hard to keep doing it?

People who exercised and then stopped tend to feel more down and depressed than those who continue exercising, so how can we maintain our motivation to exercise?

One factor to consider is the intensity of our physical activity. Do you tend to start off too hard? When we exercise to the point where it is hard to talk, the immediate mood boost we usually experience after exercising is delayed by approximately 30 minutes. This delay in mood enhancement can put us off exercising. Starting slowly, with a moderate exercise plan can help us to maintain our physical activity goals.

Have you found the right exercise for you? It is important to find a physical activity you enjoy, not one that feels like a chore. If you start a gym class to help you lose weight but you don’t actually enjoy it, it’s unlikely you’ll stick at it.

One way to find the right exercise for you is to consider your social-psychological needs, which can change over time. These are:

  • Achievement
  • Mood and tension release
  • Playfulness
  • Search for meaning
  • Self-esteem
  • Stress management

Different needs require different exercises. If you want to cope better with stress, activities that provide a welcome distraction such as running or aerobics would be beneficial. Activities such as competitive team sports are likely to add to the stress that you’re already feeling, so you won’t get the same sense of enjoyment from them.

Therefore, it may be that you haven’t found the right exercise to meet your current needs. Today’s activity helps you do just that! The worksheet includes a quiz to help you determine your current social-psychological needs and the types of exercises that match these needs. Once you’ve discovered what type of exercise may be right for you and your wellbeing, why not give it a go?

Click the link below to download the worksheet. You can fill it in using the ‘fill and sign’ tool or alternatively print it off and fill it in by hand.

If you are doing the right type of exercise but are struggling to stay motivated, research has shown that the following can increase your chances of staying active:

If you take up a new physical activity or make a change to your exercise regime, please do get intouch and share your story.

I share wellbeing-related research, news and stories on twitter and Instagram inbetween weekly blog posts so do follow @15minwellbeing on both platforms tokeep up to date.