They may be basic, but they can have a big impact on mental health

Jessica Ball, M.S., RD
December 28, 2020
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Credit: Getty Images/Claudia Totir

You know that grumpy feeling when you haven’t had quality sleep in a few days (or weeks)? Or if you’re in an exercise rut and lacking extra energy? Us too, it happens to everyone. But new research has revealed it may have consequences on your mental health. Lucky for us, there are a few healthy habits that are scientifically proven to boost your mood. Here’s what the research says. 

A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology looked at the connection between mental health and lifestyle habits, and they had some interesting findings. They surveyed over 1,100 young adults in New Zealand and the United States about their habits surrounding sleep, physical activity and what they ate. They also considered factors like demographics, socioeconomic status, health conditions and drug and alcohol use that may have influenced the results. What they found was that sleep quality was the strongest predictor of mental health. This was closely followed by sleep quantity, physical activity and consumption of fruits and vegetables. 

Basically, in short, getting more sleep, moving your body and eating produce was associated with better mental health and improved mood. After the year we have all had, this may not be the most encouraging news if you’re struggling to sleep, find time to move your body and get your veggies in. However, there are simple ways to improve your mental health by focusing on these three basic habits. Here are some of our tips on healthier sleep, movement and eating. 

1. Sleep 

This study found that people with less than eight hours and more than 12 hours of sleep had greater likelihood of depressive symptoms and lower sense of well-being. In short, this means that sleeping more isn’t necessarily better if it isn’t quality sleep. So how can you improve the quality and quantity of your sleep? It all starts with building a healthy nighttime routine. Here are a few simple tips: 

  • Have a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time
  • Turn off screens at least 30 minutes before bed 
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed 
  • Have a healthy bedtime routine 

A healthy bedtime routine could include journaling or light planning for the upcoming day. You may find that light stretching before bed also helps you relax. Lastly, be sure to keep up with your pre-bed hygiene, like brushing your teeth and washing your hands and face. 

2. Exercise 

When you exercise, it releases endorphins in your body, which can lead to short- and long-term feelings of well-being. It may seem obvious that this would contribute to better mental health and happiness, but just how much did it take for researchers to notice impacts on mental health? 

For this study, they asked participants how many days they are physically active for 30 minutes or more. The average response was three days per week. Though a lack of physical activity did not have as profound of effects on depressive symptoms and well-being, increased levels of physical activity significantly improved depression and overall wellness. If you are looking for a way to boost your mood, move your body. Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Pick an activity that you actually like. If you don’t like to run, choose something else. 
  • Get the family involved. Go for a walk, hike or bike ride together. 
  • Block off your schedule with times devoted to exercise 
  • Try a fitness tracking app or virtual workout class  
  • Think outside the box. Shoveling, cleaning and playing with kids all count as movement!

3. Fruit and Vegetable Intake 

Similar to physical activity, the researchers noted that fruit and vegetable intake was a secondary factor to mental health compared to sleep. That said, increased fruit and vegetable intake had significant impacts on overall well-being. There are so many ways that what you eat can impact your stress levels, anxiety, depression and much more. Here are some easy ways to boost your intake: 

  • Add vegetables to foods you already eat, like pasta, omelets or stews.
  • Snack on fruits. Pair them with yogurt, peanut butter or nuts for a protein boost to keep you full for longer. 
  • Choose frozen veggies. They are a fraction of the price, last forever in the freezer and cook quickly. Plus, most require no time to prep, saving you precious time.
  • Blend fruits and vegetables in smoothies

For more inspiration, check out our Eat More Vegetables Challenge

Bottom Line 

Mental health is complicated and individual, but research continues to illuminate factors that may help boost our health, happiness and well-being. Scientists from the University of Otago for significant links between mental health and sleep, physical activity and fruit and vegetable intake. Focusing on these basic healthy habits is a science-approved way to boost your mood and improve your overall health in a year when we need it most. And you don’t need a complete lifestyle overhaul, these small tips can help nudge you in the right direction.