(and how this is good for your psychological well-being)


written by Jane Anasatasios, Psychologist

It is pretty well established that looking after ourselves physically can have great benefits for our psychological and overall wellbeing.   We will take a look at four key areas or lifestyle factors: exercise, diet, sleep and relaxation that can affect our mental health. The good news is that there are certain behaviours and habits or practices that we can build into our daily lives that will help to enhance these 4 factors and improve our chances for physical psychological and general wellbeing.

Exercise and Psychological Wellbeing

Bottom line – regular exercise is linked to improved physical health.   We also know that there is a strong association between regular exercise and good mental health.  Regular exercising has been linked with assisting people with depression, anxiety, and managing stress.  There are a number of ways that regular exercise can help our psychological wellbeing:

  • boost your energy
  • build self-confidence and feelings of accomplishment
  • provide you with opportunities to socialize with others which is also linked to good mental health (e.g. team sport, walking with a friend, group classes, rock-climbing)
  • help you get better sleep
  • help reduce stress
  • provide a distraction you from your worries and negative thought patterns
  • boost creativity and productivity
  • give your mood a lift

This is what health experts suggest:

  • Aim to get 30 minutes of exercise each day
  • Consistency seems to be the key, but some exercise is better than no exercise
  • Having a goal and being clear about why exercise is important to you can help you to keep it up when you are not feeling up to it
  • Play to your strengths and do what you enjoy
  • Work out if you enjoy exercising alone or with others or a bit of both
  • Consult a GP before you start up if it’s been a while or if you have any health concerns or niggling injuries you need to take into consideration.
  • Look for opportunities if time is scarce. One of my friends decided that instead of watching her 2 daughters at Tae Kwando, she would sign up for an adult class herself at the same time.  A few years later, she now has a black belt and her kids are very proud of their mum.   Jump in the pool and do a few laps in the spare lane while your kids are having their lessons.  Meet a friend for a walk rather than a coffee.

More information and Resources:

Talk to your GP, an exercise physiologist (A GP can help you arrange this), Personal Trainer

Local Council and Community Health Centres often have free/low cost exercise options for people of all ages and physical abilities (eg; Walking groups, Swimming classes, Exercise classes, Yoga, Martial Arts)

Healthy Eating and Psychological Health:

Eating a healthy diet is well known to improve our physical well being.  Nutritionists recommend diets with lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and with few processed foods or added sugars.  Keeping well hydrated, and limiting alcohol intake is also important.

Some really interesting research has started to emerge that looks at people’s diet patterns and how this can affect their mood and general psychological wellbeing.  It is a growing area of study and it is still in its early days, but what they seem to be finding is that better quality diets are consistently associated with reduced depression risk.  On the flip side these studies are also showing that unhealthy dietary patterns are associated with increased depression and often anxiety. Some interesting findings are also emerging among quality of diet and other lifestyle factors, our immune system, gut-health, stress and our psychological health. There is also some research that has linked particular nutritional supplements with improved psychological health.

The other aspect of the relationship between diet and mental health is the impact of poor mental health on our dietary behaviours and eating habits. For example, when some people feel stressed or experience difficult and uncomfortable emotions they often seek comfort foods and/or tend to pay less attention to eating well – which of course then in turn affects how we feel and how well our body is functioning.  Changes in eating habits and appetite often accompany depression and anxiety.

A key message to take from all of this research is that building in a consistent healthy eating pattern seems to be related to good mental health as well as good physical health.

More information and Resources:

Talk to your GP or a dietician

A psychologist can assist if you are struggling with patterns of eating that are not good for your well being (eg: eating disorders, weight management, emotional eating) or if you are experiencing changes in your eating patterns and appetite that you think might be linked to depression, anxiety, or other psychological difficulties.

Sleep and Psychological Well being

Most of us know what it’s like when we don’t have a good night’s sleep – lowered energy, we don’t function quite as well, we might feel a bit more irritable than usual, and our ability to concentrate and focus can be compromised.  When we experience ongoing difficulties with not getting enough quality sleep our psychological, physical and general well being tends to suffer.  Depression, anxiety and stress are often linked with changes in sleep patterns and quality.   Conversely the research seems to show that when are getting good quality sleep in a reasonably consistent way, we seem to function and feel a whole lot better.  Whilst each individual varies with the amount of sleep they need, on average an adult needs between 7-9 hours per night, kids and adolescents typically need more.

There are some things you can do to improve the chances of developing good sleep habits.

Here are some of the suggested guidelines:

  • Establish routines – same time for going to bed and waking up. The body has an internal clock and hormones that regulate our sleepiness and wakefulness – this body clock works best with routine.
  • Establish winding down routines over the course of the evening, allowing about half an hour of quiet relaxing activity just before bedtime
  • Don’t try to force sleep, it can take a while to drift off. Going to bed when you are starting to feel sleepy is a good idea.
  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants for at least 4 hours before bed. Alcohol also affects sleeping.  Avoid a heavy meal too close to bedtime.
  • As a rule, exercise is good for sleep, but not just before going to bed. The best times are in the morning and before the evening meal.
  • Being out in the natural daylight during the day will improve sleep at night. This will help with your body clock and the melatonin levels in the body.
  • Keep the bedroom distraction free (ie lights off, phones and others devices off) and make sure your bed and bedroom are comfortable – not too cold or hot.

More information and resources

If you have persistent difficulties with sleeping (i.e. getting to sleep, waking up too early, sleeping too much, waking up tired and unrefreshed) check in with your GP or a psychologist

Relaxation & Stress Management Practices and Psychological Well being

 Learning ways to cope with the physiological effects of stress is a very important skill to learn and that can be one really good way of taking care of yourself psychologically.  When we are faced with a perceived stressful situation our bodies respond by activating the nervous system including releasing hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol to help you react quickly and get through the situation.  Typically, our breathing quickens, our heart rate speeds up and blood pressure rises, our mind becomes hyperalert, our immune system temporarily decreases- our body is geared up to act. This is also known as the fight or flight response, and is helpful when there is a threat or stressor. If the stress is ongoing and the physiological changes activated do not settle down this can lead to considerable psychological (irritability, anger, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, depression) and physical (headaches, fatigue, sleep problems, stomach problems) health problems.  Learning ways to help settle, calm or ‘deactivate’ the body from a stress response is really helpful.  This is where relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, mindfulness practices and yoga can come in handy.   The good news is that these are all skills that can be readily learnt and integrated quite easily into your everyday life.

More information and resources:

There are now thousands of podcasts, apps, CDs, DVDs, youtube videos, books etc available to walk you through some really helpful relaxation practices.  Ask a professional for their thoughts on which of these might be most helpful.

Meditation and yoga classes and now mindfulness mediation classes and courses are fairly easily found in most metropolitan areas – some courses are even offered online now too.

Psychologists, some GPs and other allied health professionals can help you learn relaxation and stress management skills, and mindfulness practices.


Next time we will focus in on some more ways to take care of yourself by looking a bit closer at psychological and emotional self-care strategies.  Until then, take care.