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Physical-Mental Health Connection

  • What is the connection between exercise, nutrition and mental health?
  • How do emotions influence how the body feels?
  • How can I help my middle schooler make better choices around food and exercise?

Our minds and bodies are connected.  What we eat and how we move our bodies affect how we feel both physically and mentally.  This mind-body connection is important for parents and caregivers to understand because it can help when challenges around mental health in their child arise.  Looking at how food and exercise may be playing a role in that issue can help them move towards a more positive frame of mind.

How does exercise affect mental health?

As a parent or caregiver, supporting your middle schooler in finding a form of exercise they enjoy can be very beneficial for their mental health..  Research has shown that adolescents who exercise in some way on a regular basis are less likely to become depressed and anxious. This is because exercise increases serotonin, the chemical regulates mental health and also helps to release “happy chemicals” called endorphins. In addition, it may help them feel better about themselves and get more quality sleep.

 Because students spend a lot of their school days sitting at a desk, they do not often get the movement their bodies need. It has been shown that in addition to the physical education they get at school, an hour of exercise can increase positive emotions and overall mental health.  This can be anything from rigorous competitive sports to yoga or walking.  The important thing is that they get their bodies moving. 

How does nutrition affect mental health?

While it is clear that what we eat affects our physical body, less attention has been paid to the role of nutrition on mental health.  When we feed our bodies high quality foods, we are also giving our brains the fuel it needs to function well.  These functions include the way we think and how we feel. Foods that support the proper use of our mind, and help create more positive emotions are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.  Having a good amount of these in one’s diet can help boost our mood, help us fight extreme tiredness, and protect the brain. Below is a list of some specific foods in each of these categories:

Food CategorySpecific Foods
FruitsApples, bananas, grapefruit, blueberries.
VegetablesCarrots, spinach, kale. lettuce, cucumber, beets, sweet potato, avocado, broccoli, tomatoes.
Grains/Nuts/LegumesLentils, quinoa, walnuts, pumpkin seeds.
ProteinChicken, meats, salmon, eggs.

How do thoughts and emotions affect the body?

Our bodies respond to how we think and feel, and the physical reactions can be mild or very severe. This can be a result of anger, anxiety, fear, or any other negative emotion we may experience. It is particularly apparent when we feel stressed. Physical ailments that can result from stress include, but are not limited to, low energy, headaches, chest pain, insomnia, and teeth grinding. The long term effects can include heart disease, obesity, skin and hair problems, and gastrointestinal issues. For this reason, helping adolescents identify and manage their stress is very important.

Check In:

Put a check next to the things that your child does regularly.

  • Get at least an hour of exercise outside of school each day.
  • Has a hobby or sport that allows them to move frequently.
  • Takes breaks to move their body while studying at home.
  • Eats a variety of  fruits and vegetables.
  • Eats a variety of grains and beans.
  • Eats high quality meats and fish/seafood.
  • Makes sure they eat when they are hungry.
  • Takes time to eat three regular meals a day.
  • Avoids/limits processed foods  (ex. chips, store-bought cookies).
  • Avoids/limits fast food.
  • Avoids/limits  sugar intake (ex, soda, candy).
  • Labels and expresses their emotions.
  • Has healthy ways of dealing with stress.

The above mentioned habits may lead to more positive physical and mental health.  For the ones you did not check, think about how you might help your child incorporate one or two in their routine for the next couple of weeks. Once that is established, choose one or two more. Perhaps even allow them to choose which ones they want to work on so that they feel ownership over their healthy habits. Over time, take note of and reflect on what shifts for them.

Connect & Communicate:

Modeling healthy behaviors is one of the best ways for your child to learn the mental benefits of diet and exercise.  At some point, however, you may want to talk to your child if you see that they aren’t doing some of the things listed above. Here are some ways that you can engage with your child about the importance of these habits.

Start the Conversation:

Start with observations:  “I notice that you are eating more junk food/ fast food these days and I am concerned about how that might be affecting how you feel.”

Include them in meal planning/cooking:  “I will be heading to the store tomorrow, what fruits and vegetables would you like to have for lunch and for snacks at home?”  or “What is your favorite vegetable/meat dish? Would you like to help me make it tonight?”

Offer companionship:  “I don’t always love to exercise either, but when I choose to do it with a friend, it is always more enjoyable.”

Help them find something they enjoy:  “Let’s take a look at all the classes offered at the YMCA and see which ones look most interesting to you.”

Make the mind-body connection:  “When we take care of our bodies through exercise and food, our bodies are stronger and so are our minds.  It makes us  feel better about ourselves and makes us happier.  Is that something you notice with yourself, too?”

Ways to exercise together

  • Take a family walk after dinner
  • Join a class that involves movement
  • Check out Outschool for online classes for any age level
  • Family walks, sports or outdoor games
  • Go on a hike or bike ride to their favorite place/park
  • Have your child teach you a sport they like

Ways to help your child with healthy food choices:

  • Keep fresh fruit in a bowl so that they are easy to reach
  • Store tempting foods (cookies, etc) in the back of cupboard
  • Allow teens to choose which fruits and vegetables they want to try
  • Find alternatives to food when they are feeling stressed
  • Encourage them to listen to hunger cues and don’t skip meals
  • Have them help you make a healthy foods shopping list and stick to it
  • Have healthy snacks available for when they are hungry (ex. Hard boiled eggs, nuts/seeds, carrot sticks, fruit that has already been cut in fridge)
  • Find a community garden they can participate in

Contact & Collaborate:

One of the best places to start is to find local agencies and organizations that support families with nutrition and exercise.  For additional resources, reach out to a school counselor or after-school program counselor.

  • Local food pantry
  • WIC information
  • Local YMCA
  • Local Boys and Girls CLub
  • Local Parks and Recreation

Continue Learning:

Explore these resources to find out more about how eating and exercise can affect mental health.  There are also articles on how to support healthy food choices and exercise with your teen.

Exercise and Mental Health 

PBS Learning:  Powering Your Body with Exercise.  An interactive lesson for middle schoolers to help them understand the importance of exercise.

Raising Children (website):  A variety of articles about physical and mental health for pre-teens:


Very Well Mind (website):  Top Ten Stress Management Reliefs for Teens

Unstoppable Teen (You Tube):  An episode about 5 strategies to deal with teen stress:

National PTA (Podcast):  How Can I Help My Teen Manage Stress?:


Eating Healthy During Adolescence (website)

Nutrition and Healthy Food for Teenagers (website)

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