“Food is the most abused anxiety drug. Exercise is the most underutilized anti-depressant.”
Are you an emotional eater, constantly challenged to maintain a regular exercise program? Do you often turn to food when stressed, and lose sight of the importance exercise has not only on physical health, but also mental wellness? Over the course of my career I have worked with many people who struggle with weight loss, and quite often their anxieties are temporarily relieved through the pleasure of eating, and their mood in a state of depression largely because of a lack of any exercise/movement. If you want to lose weight and improve health, then it’s important to examine the direct impact food and exercise have on the quality of your life.
Losing control, anxiety, and poor eating
Psychology studies have consistently shown the inverse relationship between human control (including the perception of control even in instances where the individual isn’t in control) and stress. What this means is that the more control we believe we have in the life, the less stress we experience — and the less control we have, the more stress we battle. Busy adults know all too well what it feels like to lose control, even if it’s just momentarily. Running late, traffic jam on the way to work, kids homework to complete, and battling a head cold are just a few things that can happen to any of us on any given day. In these moments of high anxiety, we experience stress, and the need to re-gain control. It is also in these moments where sitting down with a tasty meal or treat allows for a brief respite from all the noise, and herein is where we expose ourselves to weight gain if we continue to cope with stress in this manner.
Exercise, mental health, and weight loss
When we struggle with mood issues, one of the best and most effective way to lift our mood is to engage in healthy exercise. Aside from the obvious calorie-burning (and weight loss) that accompanies exercise, we also benefit cognitively by both gaining control of our circumstances at the moment, and freeing our minds through the joy of physical activity. Don’t believe me? Just think of how you felt the last time you peeled your sweaty clothes off after a good workout, knowing you did your body well.
The challenge most people have when examining the relationship between exercise and mental health is linking up the positive value of exercise to feeling better both cognitively and physically. Specifically, it’s tough to “see” this value when you only “see” the hurdles of finding time to get started, as well as the perceived pain and discomfort of ongoing physical activity. But, if we prompt ourselves to instead “see” the back-end of a workout — the sweaty clothes that prove you worked hard — our previous lacking motivation can take a quick turn for the better.
Tips to help
If you are feeling stressed out and using food to cope, consider the following ideas to help:
- Improve time management skills. Often when we fall behind and feel overwhelmed by life, we turn to food in order to get a “timeout” from all the noise. It’s also at this point where we become most vulnerable to over-eating, making it important to improve in time management and control of daily tasks.
- Set realistic weight goals, then solicit support. Very often I hear clients tell me about weight goals they have for themselves that are either too great, or an ideal body weight that might have made sense 20+ years ago but not today. Instead, set realistic food goals, and consider a support group to help your confidence and commitment along the way.
- Develop an exercise program. Simply moving 30 minutes a day — any way you can — is better than doing nothing. Some people don’t start exercising because they feel they need to do it for hours a day and at a high level, and while that might be a goal to work up to over time, just moving your body by walking is a great way to start.
- Seek professional counseling if needed. Sometimes the stress we experience in life is more than we can handle alone, so make it a point to consider professional help if you think this kind of support can help.
Yes, I believe it is true that we most often attempt to temper anxiety by eating food, and that we also tend to disregard the tremendous value of exercise when trying to beat depression. While it is easy to get caught up in fad diets and exercise programs, your best bet for weight loss and improved mood state is to take control of your life and simply eat less, and move more.