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Healthy living

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Quick facts

Quick Facts

A healthy lifestyle is important for everyone. When we look after our physical health, we feel better too – fitter, more relaxed and better able to cope with things. This is especially important when you have a mental illness.

There are lots of ways of being healthy that feel good as well as doing you good.

  • Benefits of healthy living

    What you gain by living more healthily includes:

    • feeling better mentally – regular exercise can lift your mood and help you feel better
    • saving money – eating junk food, smoking, and drinking sugary drinks or alcohol are all expensive habits
    • fewer health problems – living a healthier lifestyle means a lower risk of developing many illnesses
    • taking control of your life – getting healthy helps you feel in control of your life.

    Getting healthy

    ‘Healthy living’ means maintaining a healthy lifestyle and introducing habits that improve your health. It can be difficult to change old habits, but there are steps you can take to become healthier. An important first step is identifying less healthy habits and learning new, positive ones to replace them, such as:

    • eating healthy foods and balanced meals
    • sleeping well and managing stress
    • practicing safe sex, drinking alcohol responsibly and not abusing drugs
    • being physically active
    • staying connected with others
    • being aware of any health risks related to your illness and its treatment, and working with your doctor to monitor these and then take action
    • taking responsibility for your overall health including having regular check-ups for your eyes and teeth.
  • How to develop positive health habits

    The key to developing positive habits that you are more likely to keep is to:

    Start slowly

    Change just one thing at a time - see the benefits that can come from eating more balanced meals or, exercising more or quitting smoking

    Make small changes – an achievable change is more likely to become a habit you keep.

    Go slowly – making a change gradually can be easier than all at once.

    Build on what you already do – for example, if you enjoy walking, try extending your usual route by a manageable amount. 

    Remember, increasing or adding even one new health behaviour can make a big difference to your health.

    Work around challenges

    There are things you can do to manage any extra challenges related to your illness and it’s treatment – such as drowsiness, sugar cravings or lack of motivation. Steps you can take include:

    • organise daily activities around side-effects of medication, for example, if you are drowsy in the morning, organise exercise for the afternoon.
    • discuss things with your doctor – there may be another medication you can try, or ask for referral to a specialist such as a dietitian or psychologist for expert advice.

    Staying healthy

    Being healthy is about more than getting fit and feeling better, it’s about staying that way too. Tips to help you stay motivated include:

    • schedule regular check ups with your doctor to monitor your progress and for that extra push you may need to keep going.
    • reward yourself – feel good about developing healthier habits by rewarding yourself with something nice.
    • overcome slip-ups – if you slip-up, be realistic and start again.

    Finding Support

    There are lots of ways to get the support you need to help stay healthy. An important step is finding a good GP (general practitioner) you are comfortable discussing your health with. Seeing the same GP each time means you can work together to manage your health and organise check-ups as needed.

    Having someone else as a ‘support person’ can make all the difference in keeping up healthy habits. Talk with your friends, family, mental health program or case worker. Don’t forget other services in your area that you can draw on too.

  • How do I get more information?

    • Contact the SANE Help Centre or phone 1800 187 263
    • Talk to your local GP – or other medical doctor who understands mental illness – for information, assessment, referral and support. They can also tell you about any specialist services that can help with specific issues, such as weight management or improving fitness.
Last updated: 30 October 2023

Quick Facts

A healthy lifestyle is important for everyone. When we look after our physical health, we feel better too – fitter, more relaxed and better able to cope with things. This is especially important when you have a mental illness.

There are lots of ways of being healthy that feel good as well as doing you good.

Feeling good, feeling healthy

The great thing about being healthy is that it helps you feel good as well as doing you good. It’s about what you eat and drink. It’s about sleeping well. It’s about being physically active, and enjoying yourself without risking your health.

Being healthy is not about looking a particular way it’s about feeling fitter – physically, mentally and emotionally.

‘Healthy living’ means making changes to your life to develop new habits that improve your health in all these ways.

Feeling good

The more you know about the benefits of healthy living, the easier it is to get motivated and start doing something about it. Here are some of the benefits:

Feeling better mentally

Research shows that getting regular exercise can lift your mood and helps you feel better, reducing symptoms for people with depression.

For people with psychotic illnesses, cutting out cannabis has been shown to reduce symptoms and makes it less likely a psychotic episode will recur. It may even mean that your doctor can look at reducing the dose of your antipsychotic medication

Saving money

Some habits you may want to change - like eating out, smoking or drinking alcohol regularly - are expensive. Eating balanced meals, cutting down on alcohol and smoking can make a real difference in spending, which means more money for the things you really enjoy (see ‘Rewarding Yourself’).

Fewer health problems

A healthier lifestyle means being less at risk of developing illnesses, which start to affect us as we grow older.

Weight gain is a common side-effect of some medications for Schizophrenia and related conditions, and this can be associated with a number of physical health problems. 

Developing good habits

Just like bad habits, good habits are hard to shake. Once you become used to small changes in your lifestyle, you find they become part of your daily routine. For example, many people say the more regularly they exercise, the more they enjoy it – really missing it when they have to skip a session.

Taking control of your life

Doing something about getting healthy helps you feel you are taking control of your life. This feels good . . .

What you are already doing

Healthy Living is not just about what you should be doing, it is also about recognising what you are doing now that’s good for you. Check out this list of easy healthy things, and see how many you are already doing:

  • eat fresh fruit or vegetables
  • walk to catch public transport
  • visit the dentist for a check up
  • walk up stairs instead of taking the lift
  • get 7-9 hours of sleep a night
  • eat breakfast regularly
  • have a sugar-free snack instead of a smoke
  • drink 4-8 glasses of water a day
  • take medication as prescribed by the doctor
  • make a meal instead of buying a take-away
  • take a walk in the park
  • smile, greet or chat to someone
  • steam, boil or bake food instead of frying it
  • use a condom during sex
  • have a regular medical test (for example, pap smear, breast screen, cholesterol check)
  • put on sunscreen when going out of the house
  • Wear a jacket on a cold day.

The first steps

A lot of what we do is driven by habit. Important first steps in getting healthy are identifying negative habits and learning new, positive ones to replace them.

Identifying negative habits

For most people, there are certain times when negative habits are more likely to appear.

When we’re bored

When we’re bored it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing things that are bad for your health. This is when it can be helpful to think about what positive things you can do with your time and energy.

When we feel down

When we’re feeling down, it’s tempting to turn to ‘quick fixes’ such as drinking alcohol, smoking, eating and using illegal drugs.

The bad news is that ‘quick fixes’ don’t last long and leave you feeling worse than before. The good news is that there are other, better ways to make yourself feel good.

When we feel tired

Having a mental illness, and even taking medication, can make people feel tired a lot of the time. Sometimes even the thought of being physically active or cooking a good meal can seem impossible. But eating more wholesome food and balanced meals can actually give you more energy. 

And the same goes for exercise. Once you start to make it a new habit, you will start to feel you have more energy than before.

When we feel stressed or anxious

Everyone feels stressed or anxious at times – but if these feelings persist, it’s important to deal with them sensibly.

Over-eating, drinking alcohol, smoking or using illegal drugs can seem like easy ways of dealing with stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, they will only make things worse in the long run.

Think about other things to help you relax which suit you – for example, listening to peaceful music, talking to someone, breathing exercises, Tai Chi or Yoga. If anxiety persists you should also talk it over with a health professional.


It can be tempting to deal with the anniversary of a sad event by doing something unhealthy, like binge-eating or getting drunk. Think about how you could break this habit by planning to do something completely different around that time – for example, by arranging to go away to visit someone or starting a new course or hobby.

Choose your company

It can be difficult to change old habits if you’re hanging out with people who do the things you want to stop, like smoking for example. Think about ways of seeing these people that don’t involve being tempted into your old habits. If they smoke when having a coffee, for example, you might want to suggest going for a walk or to a movie instead of a café when you catch up.

When you don’t feel good about yourself

When people feel down they sometimes can’t be bothered about looking after their health. Everyone likes to feel good, though, and once you start to enjoy the benefit of changing just one habit – such as breathing easier after quitting cigarettes – then it becomes easier to change other things.

Side-effects of medication

Some medications used to treat mental illness can have side-effects such as weight-gain and making people feel drowsy, restless or hungry. This can be a challenge to building up a healthy lifestyle but there are common-sense ways of dealing with it.

For example, if you feel drowsy in the mornings, arrange to exercise in the afternoon. If you regularly crave sweet foods, keep fresh fruit or fruit snacks around the house that will give you more energy.

The smoking habit

One of the most common harmful habits around is smoking, and people affected by mental illness are much more likely to be cigarette smokers than average.

If you smoke, think about how you could make the first moves to quitting: talk to your doctor about aids such as nicotine replacement (and how this might interact with medications).

For someone to talk to about ways to give up smoking, ring Quitline on 131 848.

Developing positive habits

Here are some tips on developing positive habits to help your healthy, new lifestyle.

Build on what you already do

Chances are that you already have some healthy habits – recognise and build on these. For example, try eating heatlhy foods and eating in moderation. 

Start slowly

Rushing into things is not a good way to develop healthy new habits. Pace yourself by making small changes, which are more likely to be kept up. For example, it’s better to start exercising by going for a regular walk, than by suddenly pushing yourself to run 5 km every day.

Vary techniques

Don’t allow a new habit to get boring – remember, variety is the spice of life. For example, if you go for a walk a few times a week, don’t feel you have to stick to exactly the same route. Go a different way through your local park, or explore a new route altogether.

Be flexible

It’s not always easy to change habits. Be ready for this by being flexible rather than too hard on yourself or just giving up. For example, if you stop taking sugar with coffee and find you really miss the flavour – switch to using a low-calorie sweetener rather than going back to sugar.

Look after your body

Regular physical health checks by your doctor are an important part of looking after yourself.

This is a good idea for everyone, and especially for people with a mental illness as some of those affected can be at greater risk of physical health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. This can be due to the effects of weight gain combined with high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar (sometimes called ‘metabolic syndrome’).

For this reason it is important to see a GP regularly and have periodic checks of weight, waist measurement and blood tests for cholesterol, blood sugar, and liver function among others. The doctor can also advise on a healthy lifestyle, including an improved diet, getting regular exercise, quitting smoking, and sleeping well, for example.

Danny's story

Danny is 34. He was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in his early twenties and has been taking medication regularly for seven years. While his symptoms are under control, he has become unfit which prevents him from doing many things he enjoys.

Danny was a good tennis player at high school, but stopped playing when he became unwell. He is still a fan of the sport and enjoys watching it on TV. Sometimes he thinks about how great it would be to play again, but then gets depressed about how out-of-shape he’s become.

How you can start getting healthy

Danny is a good example of someone wants to become physically active, but doesn’t know how to start.

This needs to be done in a realistic way which isn’t discouraging, and which he can keep up in the long term. By starting small he can build up his fitness and confidence so that playing tennis can become a reality. For example:

  • helping his sister in the garden – digging and weeding to build up his stamina
  • hitting a tennis ball against a wall every afternoon, to get used to handling a racquet again
  • asking at his local recreation centre about cheap or free access to tennis courts, and if there are concession rates for lessons.

Write down the main thing you’d like to do to get healthy yourself. It could be giving up smoking, sleeping more regularly or even just being more physically active.

Then, write down some new healthy habits you could start to practise to achieve this.

How to stay healthy

Being healthy is about more than getting fit and feeling better, it’s about staying that way too.

Tips for staying healthy

Here are some tips to help you stay motivated to be healthy.

Think about why you want to be healthy

There will be times when you don’t feel like bothering, and are tempted to slip back into old, unhealthy habits. When this happens, think about why you wanted to be healthier in the first place.

Join a group

Joining a group where others are trying to reach the same goal can give you the extra push you may need to keep going. This might be a gym, a gardening club, a neighbourhood house or whatever suits you.

Get support

Having someone to support you can be a big help in getting started, and can make a real difference to keeping you on track too. Let a family member, friend or health worker know how you’re getting on and encourage them to support you.

Look after your mental health

Remember to keep an eye on your mental as well as physical health. If you start to feel down and like not bothering, it could be a sign that your mental health needs some extra care, so make sure you tell your doctor or case manager about it.

Relaxing matters too

Remember that relaxing and not getting stressed are essential parts of being healthy. There are lots of free and easy ways to stay relaxed, for example:

  • going for a walk
  • meditating
  • deep breathing exercises
  • yoga
  • reading
  • listening to relaxing music.

Rewarding yourself

Being healthy can change the way you feel about your whole life. The very point of it is to make you feel good, not to ‘punish your body’. That’s why making sure you reward yourself for developing healthier habits is important.

When you’re spending less on cigarettes and other things that aren’t healthy, you can spend more on treating yourself. Here are some examples of rewards you can give yourself which are enjoyable and cost little or nothing:

  • a long relaxing bath with your favourite music playing in the background
  • organising a simple picnic
  • making yourself comfortable with a new magazine and a cup of tea or hot chocolate
  • dinner with a friend-seeing a movie
  • a walk on the beach-catching up with someone you like.

Overcoming slip-ups

There are bound to be times when you feel like giving up and going back to old habits. It’s only natural. Try the following tips to deal with these times.

Just start again

When you do slip up – skipping a walk or having a cigarette, for example – don’t think you’ve failed. Look at how far you’ve come and what you want to achieve, and just start again.

Be realistic

More than one slip-up could mean that you’re expecting too much of yourself. Think about how realistic you’re being about changing to more healthy habits, and that you do need to be flexible.

For example, if replacing coffee with herbal tea isn’t working, switch to de-caff instead.

Don’t punish yourself

Getting healthy isn’t about feeling guilty. If you do have slip-ups, don’t waste time telling yourself that you’re hopeless. Guilt won’t help you get healthy. Concentrate instead on the progress you’ve already made, and on getting back into your new habit.

Learn from your slip-ups

Be positive about slip-ups – they can help you in the long run. Thinking about why they happened will help you learn to avoid them in future.

For example, if you visit a friend in the evenings and they like to smoke cannabis at the end of the day, it can be hard to say no. A lesson from this could be to meet them in a café or in the afternoon when you won’t be tempted. Ask them not to offer you a smoke too – a true friend will respect this.

Kelly's story

After her second psychotic episode, Kelly recognised she needed to stop smoking cannabis because it made her symptoms worse. She went for over two months without a smoke, but one night – after an argument with her sister – she went to a friend’s place and had a couple of joints to unwind. The next day she felt really paranoid, and was disappointed with herself for going back to the dope.

How to take positive action

Kelly can learn from what happened – that she’s tempted to smoke when she gets stressed. Now that she knows this, she can do things to reduce the chance of it happening again, for instance:

  • planning a de-stress routine in advance – such as breathing exercises or going to bed early with a hot chocolate and a pile of magazines
  • learning not to waste time feeling guilty or blaming herself – but focusing on the future
  • asking her friends not to offer her drugs when she visits.

Write down some things you can think of to reward yourself for being healthy.

Everyone needs support sometimes

There are lots of ways to get the support you need to help stay healthy. An important step is finding a good GP (general practitioner) you are comfortable discussing your health with.

Having someone else as a ‘support person’ can be a big help, and don’t forget other services in your area that you can draw on too.

Finding a GP

It’s a good idea to have a regular doctor, a GP, who has an understanding of your general health and whom you are comfortable talking to. Seeing the same GP regularly means they can keep a better eye on your health and organise any check-ups needed.

If you don’t have one yet, ask people you know if they can recommend one. You can also just go down to your local GP’s surgery and ask to be registered.

Check it out

We all know the feeling of wondering if something is wrong – a bump, an ache, or something else – and doing nothing while we hope it goes away. Often, though, we end up worrying at the back of our minds anyway.

If there is something that needs treatment, then it’s best for it to be checked out as soon as possible. This goes for your mental as well as physical health. That’s why if you are feeling unwell at all it’s best to see your GP. If nothing else, it means you can be reassured and stop worrying about it.

Prevention is better than cure

Lots of health problems can be detected early or avoided if you get checked out regularly. This is especially important as we get a little older, or if at risk of the ‘metabolic syndrome’. Discuss with your GP having regular tests for things such as cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and breast or prostate cancer, for example.

Take some notes along

It’s difficult to remember everything you need to tell a doctor. Sometimes we just forget, or are embarrassed, or don’t want to bother them. That’s why it’s a really good idea to scribble down some notes before seeing the doctor – just some dot points are enough, to remind you of everything you wanted to ask about.

Be direct

Like anyone else, doctors understand something better when it’s explained in a simple, direct way. The more information you give, too, will help to make a diagnosis, so you get the right treatment.

Be as specific as you can about what’s bothering you. For example, if there’s a chest pain, is it sharp or aching? Is it on the right, left or centre? Is it only present when you exercise or after meals? All this will help the doctor to help you.

Be sure to tell the doctor, too, about any family history of medical conditions (such as diabetes or heart disease), and any medications you are taking, whether prescribed or not.

When you are on to a good thing

It’s a good idea to see the same GP regularly. This means the doctor gets to know your medical history, and helps you feel more comfortable in talking about personal things. That way, when you have concerns about your health you are more likely to feel relaxed about seeing your GP, and they are more likely to be able to help.

Setting up a ‘support person’

Having someone around to encourage you can make all the difference in learning new, healthy habits.

This support person could be your case manager or other support worker from a day program or Personal Helper And Mentor (PHAM) program, for example. It could be a neighbour, friend, someone in your family, or even your psychiatrist or GP. It can be anyone who knows you’re trying to lead a healthier life and agrees to help and keep a friendly eye on how you’re getting on.

The following things are important when thinking about who to ask to be your support person.


Remember your support person needs to be someone you trust, and who will take a real interest in how you are getting on.


No one can be available all the time, but think about how available a person is – in person, by phone or email.


Being a support person means being familiar with you and your life. This is likely to be someone you’ve known for some time and are comfortable talking to.

A positive attitude

A good support person sees the bright side of life. It can make all the difference to have someone with a positive approach to life helping you – it’s surprisingly infectious.

What to discuss with your support person

Here are some things to talk about with your support person, to help them help you to keep up your healthy new habits.

Explain what you’re trying to do

Be specific about what you want to do. For example, if you want to start getting fitter, don’t let them think you’re necessarily going to join a gym and do weights, when what you have in mind is walking around a park once a day.

Think about alternatives

There are bound to be days when you just don’t feel like doing things. Talk about this beforehand so that there’s an alternative. For example, you can agree that if you’re not motivated to get your usual exercise, the support person could come round and go on a shorter walk with you – to keep your healthy habit up.

Being prepared

If there are things you know are going to be a problem or a challenge, talk to your support person about getting ready to deal with these. For example, if you tend to snack a lot in the afternoon, your support person could suggest rearranging the kitchen cupboard so that healthier foods such as dried fruit, pretzels or rice crackers are at the front.

Learning by example

If your support person leads a healthy life, then you can learn from their example or even do things together. For example, if they are a keen gardener, you could help them out or even learn how to grow your own vegetables – getting exercise, fresh air, and free, good food too.

Having a back-up plan

There are bound to be times when your support person is not around. Discuss a back-up plan with them for when this happens.

For example, if you usually have a walk together, the support person might help you to arrange to walk someone’s dog while they’re away. People are often grateful to have a dog-walker, and it means you have a daily routine that gives you exercise too.

Using local services

As well as your GP and support person, don’t forget to check out other services that will help you get healthier.

Council recreation centres

These often offer cheap or free facilities such as swimming pools, tennis courts and skating ramps.

Local gymnasiums

Gyms can have a range of facilities such as swimming pools and exercise machines as well as groups such as aerobics and Tai Chi. Some offer lower fees for people with Pension or Health Care Cards.

Local Community Health Centres

These often have general health services such as dentists, podiatrists, psychologists and access to immunisation.

Neighbourhood houses

Neighbourhood houses often run groups that can help you with healthy living including Tai Chi, meditation, Yoga, dance or walking groups. Some also have groups such as healthy eating programs, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous.

Local markets

Get to know your local market – not only because the food is fresh, varied and cheap (especially just before closing), but also because it’s an enjoyable and friendly way to shop and meet people. If near enough, walk there with a shopping trolley, so you get some exercise and fresh air too.

Lyndall's story

Lyndall is in her forties and was diagnosed with Schizophrenia 13 years ago. She’s been getting stomach pains over the past month, but her GP has told her to ‘keep taking her antipsychotic medication and she’ll be fine’.

She feels the doctor sees her as a ‘psych patient’ only and doesn’t take her physical health seriously.

Lyndall also wants to get fitter so she’s not out-of-breath all the time, but can’t get motivated to start exercising.

Asking for more support

Don’t be afraid to ask for more support when you need it. It’s important for Lyndall to have a GP she is comfortable with, and who looks after her physical as well as mental health. She also needs someone to support her in getting motivated to exercise. Steps she can take include:

  • asking people she knows to recommend a good GP she can see and get a proper diagnosis for her stomach pains
  • asking a worker at the day program she attends to be a support person and discuss a ‘get fit’ program for her.

Write down some ways in which you could get support for your healthy new habits.

In a crisis

If you or someone you know experiences a mental health crisis and becomes highly distressed, it can be difficult for others to know what to do. See In a crisis for advice on how you or others can help.

Last updated: 30 October 2023

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