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Five tips to improve mental health through exercise and nutrition

  • mental-health-2020

Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs this week, is a great opportunity to reflect on our daily habits, and how these impact on our mental health.  While mental health issues can often be complex, there are still lots of small things we can adjust in order to lighten the load.

Many of these are to do with exercise and nutrition. We’ve called on our in-house experts Mikki Williden and Anna Bassett from Unitec’s Sport, Exercise and Recreation team in the School of Community Studies, as well as Ciarin Smith, a registered personal trainer (and the School’s product marketing business partner) to come up with their top five tips to improve mental health through exercise and nutrition.  

Walk it out

When you’re feeling anxious or depressed, or even if you’ve just had a bit of a hard day, sometimes a simple walk is enough to help lift your spirits – and you don’t have to go too far, either; Auckland is full of hidden urban walks that are easily accessible. Some of our favourites are:

  • Oakley Creek: Located right at the back of Unitec’s Mt. Albert Campus is a beautiful walkway along Oakley Creek and Oakley Falls. The full walk extends all the way from the start of Blockhouse Bay Rd, and ends at near the Great North Road motorway onramp.
  • Blockhouse Bay to Green Bay: You won’t find this track on Google Maps, but it weaves through the bush between these two inner-Manukau harbour bays, and provides a wonderful refreshing respite from everyday life.
  • Orakei Basin: Once a flooded volcanic crater, the Basin now boasts a beautiful purpose-built boardwalk and footbridge, providing cyclists and walkers with the perfect off-road track.
  • Riverhead Forest: Riverhead is a rare oasis of state-owned land, with a steep and rugged landscape that provides a ton of tracks for cyclists, quad bikers, walkers and trail runners.
  • Campbell’s Bay to Rothesay Bay: This walkway showcases the most beautiful views of the North Shore, Hauraki Gulf and nearby Islands. The Mairangi Bay section is weather and tide dependent, however there is an alternative route through the suburban streets.

Walking may not seem like much, but it still has some awesome benefits such as raising your heart rate, promoting weight loss, lowering blood pressure, and getting fresh oxygen into your lungs. So if you have enough motivation to put your shoes on, get out and find your own favourite urban walk!

Curb that sugar high

Our moods are intricately tied to our blood sugar levels. Meals that are too high in carbohydrates with not enough protein, vegetables and fat, will shoot our blood sugar levels up and leave them to crash down again, which can cause mood fluctuations.

Protein can help smooth out the highs and lows and buffer the impact of a higher carbohydrate intake. There are plenty of quick ways to increase our protein intake and regulate our blood sugar:

  • Plan ahead: Hard-boil a dozen eggs in advance, pre-roast a pack of chicken drumsticks, or keep canned sardines or salmon at your desk to add to salads or have as a snack.
  • Sweat the small stuff: Low levels of micronutrients such as ferritin, B12 and Vitamin D are all associated with low moods; work with your local health practitioner to ensure your levels are healthy.
  • Eat your veggies: Vegetable fibre also helps to buffer the effects of raised blood sugar, so make sure to include at least three serves of vegetables in every meal.
  • Level up your salad game: Add olive oil, nuts, seeds, or avocado to salads, which will help with nutrient absorption.
  • Measure up: Use your kitchen scales to ensure you include at least 100g of protein (this equates to about three eggs) in every meal - including breakfast!

Move like your ancestors

Some days you just don’t feel like going to the gym… but that doesn’t mean you can’t get in a good workout, right from your living room floor.

Calisthenics is a style of exercise with roots in Ancient Greece, but many of its signature moves are still done today, even if you don’t realise it.

The best thing about calisthenics is that it can be done by anyone, regardless of their fitness level – and most exercises require none, or minimal, equipment.  With a bit of creativity, you can spice up any old exercise. For example - the most common calisthenics exercise – take the humble push-up:

  • Take it slow: If a regular push-up is a breeze (full, or on your knees), try slowing down your tempo. Take 5 seconds to go down, hold for 5 seconds at the bottom, then take 5 seconds going back up – and you’ll be sweating in no time!
  • Explode: From the bottom position, push up strongly and lift your hands off the ground before repeating this explosive movement. You can add in a clap or two if you’re feeling fancy!
  • Narrow your options: Another way to mix up your push-up game is by narrowing your hands to a diamond (hands together, with a diamond shape in the middle). Or, alternatively, try making your hands wider.
  • Get your lean on: Introducing the ‘pseudo-planche push-up’… from the top position of a regular push up, shift your weight as far forwards over your hands as you can, and do the movement from this position
  • Defy gravity: Pushing up on a flat surface too easy? Get a leg up! You can either lift your legs up onto a raised surface like a chair or coffee table, or if you’re feeling really hard-core, jump into a handstand and push-up from that position.

For beginners who can’t yet do a full push up (full, or on your knees), try doing it standing against a wall, or try only doing the ‘lowering’ portion of the movement. You can still do some of these tips from these positions.

Taste the rainbow

There are lots of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables that also contain phytochemicals; these little powerhouses up-regulate our ability to fight inflammation, which is found to be one of the root causes of depression and anxiety.

The best way to ensure you’re getting in as much variety as possible when it comes to phytochemicals is by choosing foods of many different colours. Whole foods such as produce, nuts, seeds, and dairy, contain a variety of native colours, and every colour has different benefits:

  • Red and purple: These colours can be formed by a variety of factors; the bright red of tomatoes comes from cell-protective lycopene, pomegranates get their rich dark pigmentation from antioxidant compounds, and beetroot contains naturally-antioxidizing belatin pigment which helps to fight cell damage.
  • Orange and yellow: These colours are usually due to high levels of carotenoids which, once in the body, fight off cell damage and promote eye-health. Beta-carotene (one type of carotenoid) can also be converted into Vitamin A. So, can carrots really help us see in the dark...? Unfortunately, not – but they can definitely help!
  • Green: Green vegetables are often high in phytonutrients, which help fight off disease and degeneration, and also lutein and zeaxanthin, which specifically help fight cataracts and deterioration of the retina.

Get your flow on

We all know that yoga is good for us, but there are so many different types of yoga, sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what type to go for. Each has their own specific quirks and benefits, which may be better suited to different types of moods or mind-sets:

  • If you want to sweat: Vinyasa is often fluid, creating a clear connection between breath and movement, and helps to improve your flexibility, balance, and strength.
  • If you want a challenge: Hatha, the oldest type of yoga, has quite a forceful style, and can involve holding poses for long periods of time while paying careful attention to posture and alignment.
  • If you want a deep stretch: Yin is similar to hatha in that it involves long pose holds, but yin is much more gentle, meditative and restorative. If hatha is seen as a challenge, yin is seen as a release. But don’t be fooled – holding posts for up to two minutes or longer is harder than it looks, and help develop good levels or resilience.
  • If you want to mediate: Mantra yoga involves the chanting of mantras, with a careful focus on repetition, sound and duration to engage the body and mind. Mantras are used to awaken the self, and add to the meditative practices already used in physical activity.
  • If you want to progress: Ashtanga has a progressive structure, meaning that beginners must learn how to achieve certain poses before moving onto more intermediate and advanced poses. Therefore, while it has all the benefits of most other types of yoga, it’s great to include if you’re committed to building a solid practice where you can progress over time.
  • If you want to recover: Iyengar is a great type of yoga if you want to work on injuries or joint issues. It involves holding your breath through the duration of poses, great attention to detail, and often uses props such as straps, blocks and blankets.

By making small adjustments to our exercise and nutrition habits, we can help to make a big difference to our overall mental health.


Ciarin Smith is a product marketing business partner in the Marketing team at Unitec, and is also a registered Personal Trainer. Ciarin runs Fitsmith, a business that provides small-group personal training courses specialising in calisthenics

Mikki Williden is a Registered Nutritionist and Senior Lecturer in Community Studies at Unitec

Anna Bassett is a lecturer/TA and practicum co-ordinator in Sport & Community Studies at Unitec.  She is also an event co-ordinator at TotalSport; a role which resulted from a placement she had while studying for her Sports Degree at Unitec three years ago.