Most people will tell you that life moves too fast for them. The expectations of our modern world place a huge amount of pressure on adults on how hard they work, how much they accomplish and the pace at which they go. People are often running from one thing to the next. Social media has also created a world where you are constantly pulled to feel like you should be doing better. If in addition to work and life, you add in other roles you may hold like juggling life with young kids, being a caregiver to an aging parent or supporting a family member coping with mental illness or addiction, and the idea of exercise, healthy eating, and self-care for yourself feels pretty much impossible.
Numerous research studies have shown that healthy eating, regular physical activity, and self-care have a positive impact on mental health. These studies show that regular exercise may significantly help depression and anxiety symptoms [1, 2, 3] and that dietary changes can also help improve your mental health [4, 5]. Most people need better self-care or can benefit from some lifestyle changes. Finding a way to make that happen, in today’s world and with the constant pressure and expectations, isn’t as simple.
Here are some things to consider:
1. Make it simple and build tiny habits: Maybe you don’t need to change your whole diet, go for an hour walk or take a day off work to care for yourself. Sometimes part of the problem is we think we need to go big, without recognizing that it’s the small changes over time that build lasting success. Maybe it’s about finding some small changes you can integrate in your everyday life such as grabbing a pre-made salad for lunch and some energy bites rather than a meal that is heavy and high in carbs, taking a 5-minute break to get outside for some fresh air or doing some exercises while you wait for the coffee to brew. Build change around your routine to start, by doing something with the time that exists within the current structure of your day. As BJ Fogg said it, in his book Tiny habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, “there are only three things we can do that will create lasting change: Have an epiphany, change our environment, or change our habits in tiny ways.”
2. Make it fun: Sometimes we focus on what we feel we should be doing rather than the things that are enjoyable. Maybe your workout isn’t an aerobics DVD or a run, maybe instead it’s going out dancing (or dancing in the living room with your spouse or your kids), taking a hip hop class, or indoor rock climbing, or kayaking, or exploring new nature trails. How do you like to move?
3. Figure out what’s getting in your way: Lack of time? Talking yourself out of it? Unrealistic expectations? Once you know your biggest barrier, that’s when you can start to figure out what you can do to overcome it. Here’s where you start to explore what needs to come off your plate or how do you work some very small changes into your day. Also, how do you call yourself out on your unattainable expectations and focus on realistic goal setting. Talking yourself out of things is also a very common barrier. What can you tell yourself instead to talk yourself into it, so that when you begin to notice those thoughts showing up, you know what you’ll say to get yourself going?
4. Focus on one thing at a time: You can’t do everything at once. If you are working on multiple changes at once, it’s harder to make it stick. It might be helpful to write out what you want to do and then to recognize that this may be your long-term goals, to reflect on what you start with and what is a small change you could realistically introduce this week to work towards this goal.
5. Notice how your thoughts and beliefs about yourself and about self-care may be impacting you: When you feel that you don’t deserve time for self-care or to prioritize your health, this will likely hold you back. Many people are focused on how they can help their kids, their spouses and family members and find that they put themselves at the bottom of the list. It’s not easy to create healthy habits when you hold certain beliefs or thoughts about yourself that you aren’t worthy, that it is selfish to focus on yourself or that you haven’t done enough to earn it. Working with a therapist can help you in understanding yourself and how certain beliefs and thoughts may be impacting you and how you might begin to work with those thoughts.
- Mayo Clinic, Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495
- Craft, Lynette and Frank Perna. The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/
- Harvard Health, Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-is-an-all-natural-treatment-to-fight-depression
- Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, The emerging link between food and mental health, https://www.camh.ca/en/camh-news-and-stories/the-emerging-link-between-food-and-mental-health
- American Psychological Association, That salad isn’t just good for your nutrition – it may also starve off depression, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2023/06/nutrition-for-mental-health-depression