Improving Employee Mental Health: Impacts of Nutrition & Exercise

Over the past few years, many companies have been amping up their mental health support for employees. This is with good reason: employees who are psychologically healthy and feel their company cares about their health and well-being are consistently more engaged and motivated at work. Mental health issues also account for 30-40% of short-term disability claims and they’ve been on the rise since the start of the pandemic.

Thanks in no small part to the pandemic, I personally have reflected on the impact that my diet, exercise, and movement, in general, have had on my mental health. As a holistic nutritionist that leads workplace wellness programs for North American companies, you would think that health and wellness came easy to me but it definitely wasn’t always the case.

I grew up playing competitive sports and fitness was definitely part of my younger life but when I went to University, like many people, my physical activity dropped off significantly and I did not eat well at all. Coupled with the stress of school and a lack of quality sleep, my anxiety levels skyrocketed and I struggled with both my mental and physical health throughout my early twenties.

It was only thanks to learning about nutrition and changing my diet, which subsequently gave me the energy and motivation to get moving again, that my mental health improved. It wasn’t always easy, but as I experienced these benefits I was more motivated to continue to make healthier choices.

To improve employee mental health, don’t overlook the impact of nutrition and exercise.

It may seem obvious that the food you eat has an impact on how you feel mentally, emotionally, and physically, but many people don’t think about it. For example, specific nutrients are associated with better mental health. Vitamin D deficiency may be associated with an increased risk or severity of depression. Omega 3’s (which play a key role in brain development and signaling) may be effective supplements in the treatment of anxiety and depression. In general, anti-inflammatory dietary patterns that emphasize the consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and healthy fats have been associated with a reduction in depression and anxiety.

There is also a growing body of evidence linking gut health to mental health. The human GI tract contains trillions of bacteria and hundreds of different species. Many of the brain chemicals that influence our mood, learning and memory, like serotonin for example, are actually created in the gut by these bacteria.

By that same token, when people exercise or move their bodies more regularly, they are more likely to experience better mental health. Regular aerobic exercise helps the body learn to better cope with stress over time and improves mood and self-esteem. Research that looked at 15 prospective studies found that those who got the equivalent of 2.5 hours of brisk walking per week were 25 percent less likely to develop depression compared to those who didn’t exercise at all. What stands out in this research is that the greatest benefits were achieved when participants went from no physical activity to at least some. Even a single bout of exercise reduces stress. The anti-anxiety effects of aerobic activity can be felt after just 5 minutes, and just a 10-minute walk has been found to have the same anxiolytic and antidepressant benefits as a 45-minute workout.

Benefits coverage for mental health counseling, your workplace culture, flexibility, and wellness offerings all play a role in supporting your team’s mental health. Simply providing education, resources, and guidance to help employees achieve dietary and physical health can help to prevent burnout. Work is where we spend most of our time and companies are often the primary means by which individuals access both physical and mental health services.

I encourage companies to consider the full spectrum of factors when aiming to tackle the current mental health crisis. If you’re looking to better support your teams with their mental health, wellness programs that help teams with their nutrition and movement can make a sizeable difference.

About the Expert

Natalia Bragagnolo is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and leads engagement and operations at HEAL Wellness. Organizations looking to address mental health challenges like stress, anxiety and depression choose HEAL for their corporate wellness programming again and again for the high engagement of their programs, the proven results they drive and the people behind the organization.