Nutrition, Fitness, & Mental Health

Work-related stress is one of the top 3 reasons for declining mental health and general dissatisfaction with life among business professionals. Adequate nutrition and fitness can provide massive benefits for someone's mental health and may even reduce urges to use drugs or alcohol. Especially among business professionals, healthy exercise and eating habits are often overlooked, although there are many ways to improve these behaviors in incremental, but still helpful, ways.

Around 60% of Americans are considered to be working professionals, and as workplace demands continue to increase, stress and other mental health conditions are on a steady incline. Recent studies have shown that incorporating physical fitness as well as healthier diets into daily routines is a critical piece of the recovery journey. Among working professionals who struggle with mental illness and substance abuse, it is now easier than ever to incorporate into their daily lives.

Fitness & Nutrition

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Mental Health in the Workplace

Around 18% of the American workforce report struggling with a mental health condition.


How Can Fitness Improve Mental Health?

Healthy fitness habits and regular exercise can improve most mental health issues.


Can Nutrition Improve Mental Health?

Yes, a well-rounded diet can improve mental health issues. A robust diet can increase levels of certain neurotransmitters.


Further Resources

Also check out our BIPOC section, as well as our lists of accredited dual diagnosis treatment centers and inpatient rehabs by state for other great resources.

Mental Health Among Professionals

Currently, 1 in 4 employees feels that their job is the number one stressor in their life. Mental health in working professionals directly affects productivity, profit of the company, enthusiasm for the job, physical abilities, and overall health. These factors are all important considerations for both the company and the individual as poor mental health can lead to unreliable and ineffective work. Unfortunately, many working professionals will not seek treatment for mental health issues because of cost, time, and belief that their stress is manageable. Then, when that mental health continues to decline and manifests itself through physical ailments, they either believe it is too late to seek help or that their problems do not stem from workplace stress or underlying mental health conditions.

Negative Effects of Mental Health in the Workplace

In the United States, it is estimated that more than 51 million people struggle with mental health conditions. Among people that are currently in the workforce in America, about 18% report having a mental health condition, though many remain silent for fear of judgment by employers or coworkers. Individuals in the workplace with mental illness often struggle with:

  • Increased Absence Due to Sickness
  • Poor Health and Physical Conditions
  • Reduced Productivity
  • Increased Errors and Accidents
  • Poor Decision-Making Skills
  • Lack of Planning or Preparation
  • Little Motivation and Commitment
  • Burnout and Fatigue
  • Poor Time Management
  • Increased Tension and Conflict with Coworkers and Superiors
  • Inability to Maintain Working Relationships
  • Substance and Alcohol Abuse

Many individuals who struggle with mental health conditions will not seek treatment for fear that a diagnosis and need for therapy or treatment may cause them to lose their job or may lead to difficulty finding a job later on. Only 57% of employees with moderate depression report seeking treatment and that number decreases to 40% in those who deal with severe depression. Studies also show that of the 23 million Americans who report struggling with substance abuse, almost 70% of them are employed full or part-time.

Stress in the Workplace

Studies have shown that working professionals rate work-related stress as one of the top three reasons for declining mental health and overall dissatisfaction with life. Around 20% of working individuals struggle with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, etc. Though it has been proven that fitness helps to decrease work-related stress, many professionals find it difficult to balance their work with other aspects of life such as physical activity, maintaining a healthy diet, and spending time relaxing with family members.

Stress is the number one contributing factor to declining mental health in the workplace, causing a host of other complications. The increasing demands placed on working individuals, especially those with a mental health condition, can lead to negative effects that directly impact both the physical and mental wellbeing of working individuals. These effects include, but are not limited to:

  • Mood and Sleep Disturbances
  • Nausea and Other Gastrointestinal Problems
  • Conflict Within Work and Personal Relationships
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Back and Upper Extremity Musculoskeletal Disorders
  • Depression, Burnout, Fatigue, and Anxiety
  • Ulcers, Cancer, Compromised Immune System
  • Increased Suicide Rates
  • Decreased Productivity and Effort in Work

Stress in the workplace also has a direct impact on substance abuse in working individuals. The top two methods of coping with stress are smoking and drinking alcohol. Stress is also linked to increased rates of relapse in drug and alcohol use. The rate of cravings for alcohol and other substances increases when stress is present, especially in individuals who already struggle with substance and alcohol abuse.

Benefits of Fitness in Reducing Stress And Mental Health Conditions

The last thing most people want to do when they get home from work is to go to the gym, but prioritizing physical fitness each day can be the determining factor in overall life satisfaction, overall physical and mental health, and overall job performance. Adequate nutrition and healthy eating habits can also go a long way toward improving mood, energy levels, and reducing susceptibility to stress.

Besides stress management and learning organizational skills, one of the most positively impactful ways of coping with workplace stress and related mental health conditions is physical fitness. Physical fitness is an important preventative measure for young people just starting their careers. Adding just 30 minutes of physical activity each day has been shown to:

  • Elevate Mood
  • Reduce the risk of stress-related illnesses such as heart and lung disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity as well as help treat these illnesses
  • Improve Self-Esteem
  • Reduce Anxiety and Depression Caused by Workplace Stress
  • Increase Focus, Memory, Productivity, and Mental Alertness
  • Improve Sleep
  • Decreased Desire For Substance and Alcohol Abuse

These benefits of physical fitness have all been proven to positively affect and improve workplace and at-home relationships which also contributes to an overall sense of satisfaction of life for working professionals. Consistent physical fitness each day is linked to improvements in mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

Companies and individuals spend nearly 50% more on healthcare for people reporting high levels of stress due to their job. The United States as a whole could save anywhere between $37.6 billion and $67.8 billion a year on medical and behavioral expenses for workplace professionals if physical fitness was implemented into the daily lives of these individuals.

Fitness, Depression, and Anxiety

There are several neurotransmitters in the brain that people with depression and anxiety are commonly deficient in, and several studies have shown how physical fitness can promote and regulate them.

  • Endorphins in the brain are related to increased positive moods and an increase in a person’s overall sense of wellbeing. Some studies indicate that exercise increases the release of endorphins.
  • Serotonin is released during exercise and is critical in treating most depression and anxiety disorders, as it helps elevate and regulate mood among other things.
  • Dopamine, also known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, is also released during physical exercise. Dopamine levels in individuals with depression are low, so the increased release from exercise is influential in boosting mood.
  • GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is another neurotransmitter increased through exercise that is active in mood and emotional regulation, stress reduction, and an ability to think clearly.

Fitness and Substance Abuse

The positive impact of exercise on substance abuse is linked to the fact that regular exercise can help decrease the urge for drugs and alcohol by reinforcing the brain’s natural ability to produce and regulate certain neurotransmitters. A lack of balance among these neurotransmitters can increase susceptibility to substance abuse, especially in people with co-occurring mental health conditions. In people who struggle with substance abuse, exercise can:

  • Increase feelings of wellbeing, reducing the urge to use or abuse substances.
  • Positively reinforces the brain through the production of feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and GABA.
  • Decrease the positive reinforcement produced through drug use by improving baseline mood.
  • Reduce stress and promote better sleep
  • Improve mood and increase energy

Of the people struggling with substance abuse who incorporated regular exercise into their recovery, researchers saw an increase in drug and alcohol abstinence of 95%.

Fitness Resources

There are many different ways working individuals can implement physical fitness into their daily routine. Although 30 minutes might seem daunting when looking at each day’s busy schedule, studies have shown that breaking it into three 10 minute intervals is just as effective as completing a single 30 minutes of fitness. Some individuals may find it easier to fit this 30 minutes in before or after work, and several fitness apps can be used to track this time such as:

  • Apple Watch, Fitbit, Samsung Galaxy Fit: These watches have built-in fitness devices that can be synced to your phone for easy and convenient tracking. Fitbit also offers several online community boards to connect members.
  • Google Fit: An app for phones that can use your device to track workouts. Google Fit is available for Android, iOS, and has integrations for dozens of other fitness apps.
  • 8Fit: An overall wellness and fitness app, 8Fit provides workout routines, meal ideas, and sleep meditations. It is available for Android and iOS.
  • Charity Miles: A fitness app that can benefit you and others, Charity Miles logs your fitness activity, and for every mile you run, the sponsors of the app will donate to a charity of your choosing. Available for Android and iOS through their website.
  • MyFitnessPal: An app that tracks workouts as well as meals. This can help individuals who are interested in overall physical health and the app breaks down caloric intake for each day as well as how many calories those exercises burn. MyFitnessPal also offers online communities, some directed specifically at individuals with mental health and substance abuse conditions, to help motivate individuals in group settings.
  • Mental Health America: This non-profit organization is challenging people who struggle with mental health conditions and substance abuse to their Fitness 4Mind4Body which offers different challenges, tips, and tricks for promoting physical wellness and nutritional balance.

If you are unable to fit in a single 30-minute workout, some other ideas for implementing physical activity into your day in increments are:

  • Taking a walk for 10 minutes in the morning or afternoon.
  • Ride a bike to work or park farther away from your building to encourage walking.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator or park farther away than you normally would.
  • Do yoga or other mindfulness techniques on days off to set the mood and intentions for the week.
  • Schedule 10 minute breaks between meetings or clients to walk around the office.
  • Take a walk with friends, neighbors, or family after dinner. This is great because it introduces physical fitness to your kids as well and the family can do it together each night.

Another helpful suggestion is to prioritize physical activities on the weekends to make up for the week. This could include going to the park, swimming, hiking, and a wide variety of other low-impact, healthy activities.

Benefits of Balanced Nutrition on Mental Health

Studies currently show that individuals in the United States who struggle with high levels of stress and other mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety, may be deficient in key neurotransmitters that our bodies and brains need. There are dietary measures that can be taken to increase the levels of many of these neurotransmitters, by increasing the intake of the “raw materials” that these neurotransmitters are made from. Implementing the recommended vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids can greatly improve symptoms of stress. Healthy eating can also be a key preventative measure for young working professionals to decrease their risk of workplace stress leading to mental and physical health conditions.

Just a few areas that diet can affect include:

  • Energy Level
  • Motivation and Productivity
  • Stress and Anxiety
  • Depression and Associated Symptoms
  • Focus
  • Mood

Interestingly, the GI tract influences the production of certain neurotransmitters. Consumption of healthy, nutrient-rich foods helps the “good” bacteria in the GI tract grow which directly influences the production of positive neurotransmitters. Those neurotransmitters are influenced by proteins and other essential fatty acids, and there is a link between carbohydrates consumed and insulin levels which also affect neurotransmitter release within the brain. A more balanced diet can regulate and balance the neurotransmitters within the brain that improve anxiety, depression, and ultimately substance abuse.

Implementing a Healthy Diet

Busy lifestyles often lead to convenient sources of food, mainly fast food, which do not provide all of the essential nutrients our bodies need to function properly and healthily. The things we put into our bodies directly affect brain function. There are many different resources out there that can help working professionals schedule physical fitness into their daily lives to help reduce the negative effects of stress as well as help them prioritize healthy eating habits.

Though fast food is an easy and convenient means of obtaining food, there are many healthier options available for working professionals. A few of the foods that can help improve mental health include:

  • Whole Foods, such as Unprocessed Grains, Fruits, and Vegetables.
  • Foods with High Fiber Content
  • Foods High in Antioxidants or Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • Leafy Greens & Lentils
  • Vitamin D-Rich Foods
  • Lean Proteins
  • Probiotic Yogurts

Packing your lunch is a great way of making sure that the food available is healthy and nutrient-rich. Many people find it easier to meal prep on the weekends, that way it is convenient in the morning to grab and go. Some other ways to implement healthy eating are:

  • Make a health-conscious list when you go grocery shopping and stick to it. If you don’t have sugary drinks and unhealthy options at home, you will have little choice but to pack healthy foods for lunch.
  • Limit eating out to once or twice a week. Not only will this save you money, but it will help you to make healthier choices.
  • Snack on things like nuts, fruit, and vegetables.
  • Get the whole family included in healthier eating habits. This is important for teaching kids how to prioritize health, but it also keeps each family member accountable for following through.
  • Find meals that everyone likes and tweak them to be more health-conscious. Instead of ordering pizza, make it at home. This is a fun way to engage the whole family, but it also allows you to be more aware of what is being put in the food.

Apps such as MyFitnessPal are great ways of tracking what you eat and what category (carbohydrate, protein, fats) those foods fall into and it can help you become more aware of what things you are putting into your body. It can also help to see a nutritionist because they can tell you what things your diet may be lacking and help you make a plan moving forward on what things you should implement into your diet and what things you should stay away from. In the end, being more health-conscious and making sure to add specific vitamins, minerals, and fats into your diet can help reduce the risk of mental health issues, and improve sleep, mood, and overall state of mind.