Mental health is in the news right now. The isolation, fear and anxiety of COVID-19 shutdowns have spawned a society very much on edge, and not as mentally healthy as it could be. But there are three key things that can help us turn the corner on this problem.
It seems that exercise, good quality sleep and eating more raw fruits and vegetables may be the key to improved mental health. That, at least, is what research our of the University of Otago is telling us about the mental health of young adults.
The study surveyed over 1,100 young adults in the United States and New Zealand. It asked about physical activity, diet, sleep and their mental health. The findings were published in Frontiers in Psychology.
According to Shay-Ruby Wickham, the study’s lead author, their findings show that sleep quality mattered more than sleep quantity, and was the most significant predictor of mental health and well-being.
“This is surprising because sleep recommendations predominantly focus on quantity rather than quality. While we did see that both too little sleep — less than eight hours — and too much sleep — more than 12 hours — were associated with higher depressive symptoms and lower well-being, sleep quality significantly outranked sleep quantity in predicting mental health and well-being.
“This suggests that sleep quality should be promoted alongside sleep quantity as tools for improving mental health and well-being within young adults,” Ms Wickham says.
Three behaviors which are well in control of each of us had the biggest impact on mental health. Quality sleep, exercise and eating more raw fruits and vegetables were numbers 1,2 and 3 in terms of how much they affected mental health in young adults.
Getting 8 hours of sleep per night led to the strongest feelings of well-being. Getting 9.7 hours per night led to the lowest correlation to depressive symptoms.
On the veggie front, eating 4.8 servings of raw vegetables and fruit per day returned the strongest feelings of well-being. Fewer than 2 servings or more than 8 servings per day seemed to have the opposite effect.
“Sleep, physical activity, and a healthy diet can be thought of as three pillars of health, which could contribute to promoting optimal well-being among young adults, a population where the prevalence of mental disorders is high and well-being is suboptimal,” Ms Wickham says.
Senior author, Associate Professor Tamlin Conner, of the Department of Psychology, says most prior research examines these health behaviors in isolation of each other.
“We showed that they are all important for predicting which young adults are flourishing versus suffering.”
She also stressed the study’s findings were correlations only.
“We didn’t manipulate sleep, activity, or diet to test their changes on mental health and well-being. Other research has done that and has found positive benefits. Our research suggests that a ‘whole health’ intervention prioritizing sleep, exercise, and fruit and vegetable intake together, could be the next logical step in this research,” she says.
Get some exercise, eat your fruits and vegetables (mom was right!) and get 8-9 hours of sleep each night. These are all things that are within each of our power to manage. And each, it turns out, can have a big impact on how good we feel and how mentally healthy we are!
Keep the faith and keep after it!
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Journal Reference – Shay-Ruby Wickham, Natasha A. Amarasekara, Adam Bartonicek, Tamlin S. Conner. The Big Three Health Behaviors and Mental Health and Well-Being Among Young Adults: A Cross-Sectional Investigation of Sleep, Exercise, and Diet. Frontiers in Psychology, 2020; 11 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.579205