Skip to main content

Visions Journal

Live, Work & Play for Your Mental Health

Zarina A. Giannone, PhD, RPsych, CMPC & Karen Giesbrecht, MA, RD

Reprinted from the Nourishing and Moving Our Bodies issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 19 (1), pp. 5-7

Photos of authors, Zarina A. Giannone and Karen Giesbrecht

While we must all take responsibility for how we live our lives, many of our health behaviours are shaped by the environments in which we live, work and play. In this article, we review connections between nutrition, physical activity and mental health.

Do we choose what we eat?

On one level, this is a simple question. You almost certainly have a good sense of what you like to eat and what you will pass up. But in many ways, we do not choose what we eat. There are numerous influences on our food choices, some which we can control and some which we cannot.

The biggest influence is our income. If people can afford good food, they usually choose it. And by good, we mean both good for us and tastes good. With enough income, we can even choose foods that are grown and produced in ways that are good for the environment, like organic vegetables and free-range eggs. But for those who struggle to make ends meet, such choices are usually a luxury beyond reach, especially with climbing food prices.

Another big influence on what we eat is who we live with. Those who live with others and can share the work of grocery shopping, cooking and cleanup usually eat reasonably well, especially if everyone in the household is committed to healthy eating. Those who live in institutions or rely on community food programs can only choose from what is offered. Those who live alone must work harder to make good food choices.

Beyond our home, another influence is how close grocery stores and restaurants are to us, especially if we do not have access to a car. Individuals and families with lower income must often spend more money (for example, on cabs or ride shares), time and effort to get the groceries they need. It is harder to make good food choices if the foods we need are not accessible.

Another factor is our mental health. When overwhelmed with anxiety, depression or other strong emotions, it is really hard to find the energy to cook and eat well. Eating poorly amplifies mental health challenges. Medications are often helpful, but some have side effects that impact appetite and digestion. We will not feel our best if we have too much ultra-processed food, caffeine or sugar. Everyone copes better with a regular rhythm of meals and snacks, plus enough water and fibre.

Other influences, like our culture, the weather, daily schedules and commitments, gut bacteria and our genetics also influence what we eat. So, consider for a moment the wisdom of the serenity prayer: accept what we cannot change and change what we can.

Many of these influences we cannot change, but a few little steps can make all the difference. Eat something with protein within a few hours of getting up. Have a glass of water when you finish reading this, or wherever you feel sluggish or have a headache. Try a new vegetable this week. Even if you just eat five percent better, it could be enough to help you cope with whatever your day throws at you.

Can movement be medicine?

Physical activity has a wide range of health benefits. Movement can help us reduce our risk of diabetes, sleep better and boost overall fitness and health. A lesser-known but powerful truth is that physical activity can also be extraordinary medicine for our minds. Physical activity means any voluntary body movement, ranging from structured exercise routines to everyday activities like using the stairs. It can be training for a marathon, active housework or simply going for a walk or wheel around the block.

The benefits of physical activity on our mental health cut across our biology, psychology and socio-cultural environments, or the customs, people and organizations we interact with often.

Biological advantages of physical activity include the release of “feel good” endorphins that make us feel happy and improve our mood. Other gains include less muscle tension and stress, better memory and more creativity and energy.

Psychological benefits of physical activity can involve building a sense of achievement that enhances self-esteem and body image. Physical activity also offers opportunities to focus our attention on a single task. When we are focused, we tend to worry less and we stop overthinking. Staying focused over time can make us more mindful and help us develop healthy coping behaviours and routines.

Finally, social advantages of physical activity include things like engaging in positive social interactions, connecting with others in nature and establishing a sense of community and belonging.

The physical activity choice

Life can be hard sometimes, and many things get in the way of being active. We cannot always choose how close we live to parks, trails and community centres, or whether it will be too hot or too wet to get outside. Depression is another experience that can make physical activity feel much less attainable. But just as making small changes to how we eat can help us to feel better, there are things we can do to incorporate more movement into our lives.

1. Think small, think simple. Even small amounts of physical activity can make a big difference. If you are unable to walk, run or work out for longer periods, start with five to 10 minutes a session and slowly increase over time. You don’t have to do anything elaborate. No bootcamp or expensive gear is necessary to get moving. Consider simple options that are accessible to you, like going for a walk, stretching or body weight exercises (like a push-up or yoga posture).

2. Do what you enjoy. Find activities that suit your personality and lifestyle. For example, if you enjoy the social component of physical activity, find a walking group or community sports team. If you prefer to exercise alone, music or an audiobook can make the activity more enjoyable. Choosing the right activity for you will set you up for long-term success.

3. Overcome obstacles. Taking the first step is easier said than done. Identify barriers that may stand in the way of your physical activity routine and develop a plan to navigate them. Remember, you do not have to do it all alone. Consider consulting health and fitness professionals to help you set goals and support your movement journey (see sidebar).

Overall, choosing physical activity and good food every day will build up to significant changes over time. Your good choices will pay off!

Related Resources

Some BC health and fitness professionals

Psychologists: BC Psychological Association –

Clinical Counsellors: BC Association of Clinical Counsellors (not yet regulated under the Health Professions Act of BC):

Dietitians: Dietitians of Canada – and Dietitian Services at HealthlinkBC –

Physiotherapists: Physiotherapy Association of BC –

Sports medicine practitioners: SportMedBC –

About the authors

Zarina is a Registered Psychologist and Certified Mental Performance Consultant. She works at the Vancouver Psychology Centre, where she offers psychotherapy, assessment and sport/performance psychology services to adolescents and adults. A high-performance athlete in her own right, Zarina has worked with recreational to Olympic-level athletes from various backgrounds. She is currently the team psychologist for the BC Lions

Karen is a registered dietitian with a particular interest in mental health, strong communities, good stories and real food. She wove all these together in Happy Colon, Happy Soul: An Exploration of Why and How we Share Food (Wipf & Stock, 2019). At home in Vancouver, Karen takes great delight in sharing good meals with her family, friends and those in her community who know hunger

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.

  • eVisions: BC's Mental Health and Substance Use Journal, a theme-based magazine
  • Healthy Minds/Healthy Campuses events and resources
  • Within Reach: Resources from HeretoHelp
  • Jessie's Legacy eating disorders prevention resources, events and information

Sign up now