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Are you doing your 5-a-day?

Learn the five daily actions that can boost mood and support our mental health.

Everyone knows that eating five portions of fruit and vegetables are good for us (1) but did you know there are also five activities we can do every day to maintain and improve our mood?

Research has found that doing these five simple things not only helps us feel good but can also support our mental health during difficult times (2).

What’s great about these five ways to well-being is they are not prescriptive. They are broad activity themes which means you get to choose and tailor what you do based on how you feel, where you are and how much time you have.

Not that specific actions aren't helpful - 30 minutes of daily cardio, 20 minutes of meditation, list 3 things you are grateful for, get 8 hours sleep - but they can seem more like things to check off your to-do list, setting you up to strive and feel bad if you don’t do them.

As these five well-being themes allow you to pick what works for you, you have the flexibility do what's best for you. What's not to like?

This means if a 30 minute run isn't your thing but a 15 minute walk is, great. And a walk with a friend gives you two of your five-a-day, as does a walk where you choose to look around you and take notice of your surroundings.

The 5 ways to well-being

Theme 1. Connect

Human beings are social animals; we feel good when we feel close to others. Developing and building good relationships gives us opportunities to share our experiences and to feel supported and understood when things are hard. Even small exchanges help us feel connected.

How? Talk to the person on the store check-out. Write a letter or postcard to someone. Ask family members about their day. Wave to a neighbour. Take time for a chat, virtual or otherwise, with a co-worker. Smile at a stranger. Ask a friend or colleague about their weekend. Talk to someone in person or on the phone instead of messaging them.

Theme 2. Move

No matter our age, for optimal physical health, we need to maintain daily levels of physical activity (current NHS advice for 18-64 year olds (3) is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week which can be broken down into smaller time periods). Mood has been shown to improve in single exercise bouts of 10 minutes of less. It doesn’t matter what you do, the important thing is to find something you enjoy that suits your level of fitness and mobility.

How? Go for a walk. Play your favourite tunes and dance. Stretch your body. Hire a bike. Potter in the garden. Sign up for a 5km challenge and get running. Join a class. Try a free online fitness video. Think you have no time? Check out the NHS 10 minute workouts.

Theme 3. Notice

As a mindfulness trainer I talk a lot about the problem of being lost in our busyness. The only moment we have is this one but we are not often here but in our heads. So much of the time we are task-focused and in the “doing” of life that we don’t notice how or where we are. This can mean we miss opportunities to support and nourish ourselves.

How? When a task is done, take the win. Savour that moment of achievement before you race on to the next thing. Pause to notice your surroundings. Find something in your space that makes you smile. Feel the wind on your face or the sun on your back. Eat or drink something with full attention to taste. Note your feelings and your thinking, use these as indicators of what works for you and inform future choices.

Theme 4. Learn

The human brain is designed to learn and problem-solve. Once thought as fixed, new neural networks can be created at any age meaning we can learn throughout our lifetimes. Trying something new, developing a skill or extending our knowledge generates optimism, improves our self-esteem and keeps us mentally sharp.

How? Try cooking or eating a new dish. Rediscover an old interest. Read a book you wouldn’t ordinarily choose. Pick a different radio station or podcast. Take on a different responsibility. Try a new form of exercise. Learn to play an instrument. Do a crossword. Sign up for a free online course. Commit to a challenge.

Theme 5. Give

Being kind to others has been found to make us feel happier, connected, part of something bigger and generally more satisfied with life. Even small acts of generosity will give both you and the others involved a boost.

How? Smile, compliment or encourage someone. Offer someone a helping hand (a friend or a stranger). Share your knowledge by mentoring someone. Write a blog. Join a community group. Check-in with a friend or colleague. Say thank you. Volunteer your time.

Over to you

Just like only you know which fruit and vegetables you like, only you know which activities you enjoy and boost your mood.

And in the spirit of learning, experiment.

Take care of you.

I have created a workbook to help you design a 5-a-day wellbeing plan. Message me for workbook.

Further reading

1. NHS (2018). 5 A Day: what counts? NHS online.

2. New Economics Foundation. (2008.) Five Ways to Wellbeing. New Economics Foundation.

This article was originally drafted for Associated British Ports Mental Health intranet page.


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