Exercise, quality sleep and eating raw fruits and vegetables are the three pillars of good mental health, a new study suggests.
Among the 1,100 young adults who were surveyed for the research, those who slept well, did more exercise and ate better were more likely to be flourishing.
Out of these, quality sleep was most strongly linked to better mental health, followed by exercise and then diet.
The finding that sleep quality rather quantity was so important was surprising, said Ms Shay-Ruby Wickham, the study’s first author:
“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.”
The study’s results showed that those who slept an average of 8 hours had the highest mental well-being.
Those sleeping almost 10 hours, though, had the lowest chance of developing depressive symptoms.
People in the study were in their early 20s, however, and generally we require less sleep with age.
Having too much sleep is generally considered almost as bad as having too little.
Diet also played an important role in mental health.
Those who ate 5 servings of raw fruit and vegetables per day had the highest mental-wellbeing and those who ate less than 2 servings each day had the worst.
Ms Wickham said:
“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.”
Dr Tamlin Conner, study co-author, warned that the findings were correlational:
“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 prioritising sleep, exercise, and fruit and vegetable intake together, could be the next logical step in this research.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (Wickham et al., 2020).