Improve Your Mental Health with 5-2-1-0

woman smelling food

Eating well, exercising regularly, reducing screen time, and drinking a lot of water not only improve your physical health, but your mental health as well. Through the 5-2-1-0 program—eating five or more fruits and vegetables daily, limiting screen time to two or less hours a day, getting one or more hours of physical activity daily, and consuming zero sugary drinks–you can improve your overall well-being and live a happier and healthier life.

Choose a healthy diet

Food is fuel. It provides your body with the necessary nutrients to give you energy throughout the day. So, the kinds of foods you eat are very important and affect your body in many ways. Diet can both improve and worsen your mental health.

Eating foods that include vegetables, seafood, fresh herbs, and grains, such as a Mediterranean-style diet, can reduce symptoms of depression. Leafy greens like spinach and kale, nuts, and beans all contain folic acid, which is associated with a lower risk of depression. Also, foods like salmon and trout are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which studies suggest are helpful in the treatment of depression.

There are also foods that can have a negative effect on your mental health. Chocolate and caffeine release chemicals in the brain that temporarily alter moods. Foods high in saturated and trans fats are also harmful because they prevent you from getting the nutrients your brain needs.

Beyond what you eat, how you eat is equally important. Eating regularly, like eating small portions spaced out throughout the day instead of eating a large lunch or dinner, will help regulate your metabolism. If you skip meals, your blood sugar may drop and you could feel tired, irritable, and depressed.

To minimize these negative effects, try to plan meals ahead, share and cook healthy meals, and keep a food diary where you write what you eat and notes about how that food made you feel (i.e., tired or energized) so you can reflect on it and make educated diet choices later.

Reduce screen time

With many people now working or taking classes from home, screen time has increased immensely in the last year and a half. With kids spending an average of seven to 10 hours a day in front of screens, they’re experiencing trouble sleeping, lower grades, and poor self-image. Too much screen time can harm a child’s development, especially for those under 5 years old. The solution: two or less hours of screen time per day.

Spending less than two hours per day of recreational screen time has been found to be associated with higher levels of life satisfaction and lower levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms. A study from UBC researchers found that teens have better mental health when they spend less time in front of screens and more time participating in activities like sports or art.

Setting screen time limits and creating phone-free zones like at the dinner table or in the bedroom will help eliminate over-usage. It’s important to be realistic when transitioning­­­­­­—start by cutting screen time in half and improving from there. Try implementing Screen-Free Saturdays into your weekly routine and spend that time connecting with friends and family instead.

Exercise regularly

Getting regular, consistent physical activity daily is essential to physical health, but it’s imperative to mental health as well. Getting one or more hour of physical activity every day can help improve your mood and mental well-being. In fact, in as little as five minutes, you can get a mood enhancement effect while exercising.

Therapists and psychologists often recommend exercise to those who are anxious or depressed. Research shows that exercise alleviates chronic depression by increasing serotonin in the brain, as well as normalizing sleep patterns which have protective effects on the brain. It has been found that exercise is generally comparable to antidepressants in those with major depressive disorder.

But getting yourself to exercise when you feel down can be extremely difficult. Try to go for a walk or simply do some yoga poses to relax and feel instant stress relief. You don’t even have to leave the house to get your physical activity in for the day.

Avoid sugary drinks

Although many wouldn’t think it, consuming sugary drinks influence your mental health as well. Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and caffeine can trigger panic attacks in those who experience anxiety. It’s recommended that you drink at least 6-8 glasses of water daily to avoid dehydration, which can cause fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and mood changes.

If you feel like you need a change from water, try low-fat milk or water infused with herbs or fruits. When in doubt, rethink your drink.

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