Exercise and Diet Help Improve Mood for Women, Study Shows

woman wearing workout clothes eating a banana

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Key Takeaways:

  • Research suggests that diet and exercise are modifiable risk factors that are associated with mental well-being.
  • New research looked at the individual and combined relationships between food, exercise and mental health among mature men and women.
  • They found that women who exercise and eat a range of healthy food may optimize their mental well-being.

Eating well and being physically active play a role in promoting good mental health. Researchers are always interested in how fitness and food can affect mood.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine, researchers looked for associations between food, dietary practices, exercise and mental distress in mature men and women.

In this case, the word “mature” refers to brain age. Lina Begdache, PhD, assistant professor at the Decker School of Nursing at Binghamton University and lead researcher on the study, explained that they divided the cohort into people who hadn't yet reached full brain maturity (young adults 18-29 years) and people whose brains were mature (adults 30 years and older).

“The rationale is that the brain may have certain nutritional needs for maturity and another repertoire for maintenance and repair with age,” says Begdache.

The participants for this study were 1,209 adults over age 30, who self-identified as either male (n=329) or female (n=880).

They responded to an online food-mood questionnaire, and responses were collected from North America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. 

The questionnaire asked about demographics, and collected data on:

  • Dietary pattern (based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025)
  • Whole grains
  • Fruits
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Protein foods including white and red meat, fish, dairy, legumes and nuts
  • Caffeine
  • Fast food
  • High glycemic index foods
  • Frequency of breakfast consumption
  • Frequency of exercise
  • Use of multivitamins and fish oil supplements

What The Study Found

“We found that men and women’s moods are associated differently with diet,” says Begdache. The results suggest that women’s mental health has a higher association with dietary factors than men.

For women, eating fast food, or eating sweets and starchy foods with a high glycemic index, was associated with mental distress, but exercise seemed to decrease the negative impact of these foods. There was also a moderate association between caffeine and mental distress.

Begdache says these foods and dietary habits support positive mood in women:

  • Fruits—high in antioxidants
  • Dark green leafy vegetables—contain folate and antioxidants
  • Eating daily breakfast—helps reduces stress hormones
  • Eating fish—a good source of healthy fats

The researchers also found that exercise may boost the positive effect of these foods and dietary habits. Begdache says that women who eat a range of healthy food and who exercise may optimize their mental well-being.

Lina Begdache, PhD, RDN, CDN, CNS-S, FAND

Women who eat a range of healthy food and who exercise may optimize their mental well-being.

— Lina Begdache, PhD, RDN, CDN, CNS-S, FAND

Interestingly, some other foods actually required being paired with exercise to be effective.

“Eating whole grain or nuts without exercise has no positive impact on mental well-being in mature women, but with exercise these food groups bring a positive impact,” says Begdache.

For men, consumption of fast food and absence of exercise were associated with mental distress. However, exercise seemed to significantly improve their mental well-being.

“We found that exercise improved the effect of most healthy food on mental status in men,” says Begdache. “Therefore, eating a healthy diet and exercising is likely to optimize mood in men, based on our findings.”

Begdache says that they did not find any dietary association with mental distress in men, but found that nuts and fish were negatively associated with mental distress.

“This may suggest that men are emotionally well but could improve their mental status by adding these foods,” says Begdache.

This study showed some interesting associations, but remember that it was not assessing cause and effect.

Exercise and Mood

Exercise is important for brain health. Past studies have shown that being physically active supports processes that improve cognitive functions and mental well-being.

It’s best to aim for at least 20 min of exercise a day, regardless of the type, to improve mental well-being.

In this study, exercise significantly reduced the negative association of high glycemic index food and fast food on mental distress, and reversed the negative outcome of caffeine on mental distress.

Exercise and healthy eating often go hand-in-hand, and the researchers observed that nutritious diets may promote exercise.

This could be either because these healthy foods provide the energy and the nutrients needed to support the working muscle and/or they modulate brain chemistry to support motivation to exercise.

Plan Healthy Habits

Eileen Santana, RD, CDN, is a food and mood dietitian and nutrition coach based in New York City. She encourages her clients to eat a wide variety of whole foods, including vegetables, dark leafy greens, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, proteins, and fermented foods.

She also recommends limiting fast food, ultra-processed foods, and simple starches such as sugary cereals, baked goods, and sweets.

Eileen Santana, RD, CDN

I've seen clients have major shifts in their mood and energy levels when changing their diets. Clients have reported less irritability, decreased mental fog, restful sleep, and fewer digestive issues.

— Eileen Santana, RD, CDN

“I've seen clients have major shifts in their mood and energy levels when changing their diets,” says Santana. “Clients have reported less irritability, decreased mental fog, restful sleep, and fewer digestive issues.”

Santana says that some of her clients are skeptical that subtle changes in their diet could make a difference in their mental health, but with time they had notable changes in their overall mood.

She also recommend that clients cut back on caffeinated drinks to help individuals lessen their anxiety.

"Ideally, caffeine should be avoided after 1 pm to reduce sleep disruption in the evening," says Santana.

What's Next?

The researchers noted that the quality of protein in women's diets may be important for their mental well-being, but this area requires more research.

What This Means For You:

Eating more whole foods, fewer ultra-processed foods and being physically active are important for brain health and to support your mood. 

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Begdache L, Patrissy CM. Customization of diet may promote exercise and improve mental wellbeing in mature adults: the role of exercise as a mediator. J Pers Med. 2021;11(5):435. doi:10.3390/jpm11050435

  2. Ingold M, Tulliani N, Chan CCH, Liu KPY. Cognitive function of older adults engaging in physical activity. BMC Geriatr. 2020;20(1):229. doi:10.1186/s12877-020-01620-w

By Cara Rosenbloom, RD
 Cara Rosenbloom RD is a dietitian, journalist, book author, and the founder of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company in Toronto, ON.