A New Zealand study has found that good quality sleep, exercising, and eating more raw fruits and vegetables improve the mental health and well-being of young adults.
The study, carried out by University of Otago, New Zealand, identified good sleep, exercise, raw fruits and vegetables as three pillars of mental health.
The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, surveyed more than 1,100 young adults from New Zealand and the United States about their sleep, physical activity, diet, and mental health.
Lead author Shay-Ruby Wickham, who completed the study as part of her Master of Science, says the research team found sleep quality, rather than sleep quantity, was the strongest 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,” Wickham said.
According to the study, along with quality sleep, exercising, and eating more raw fruits and vegetables — in that order — were three modifiable behaviours which correlated with better mental health and well-being in young adults.
Depressive symptoms the study revealed were lowest for young adults who slept 9.7 hours per night and feelings of well-being were highest for those who slept eight hours per night.
Well-being was highest for young adults who ate 4.8 servings of raw fruits and vegetables per day; those who ate less than two servings, and also more than eight servings, reported lower feelings of well-being, according to the study.
The lead author further 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 disorder is high and well-being is suboptimal.”
Senior author, Dr. Tamlin Conner
of the Department of Psychology, says most prior research examines these health behaviours in isolation of each other.
The associate professor said, “We showed that they are all important for predicting which young adults are flourishing versus suffering.
“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.”
According to the World Health Organisation, compared to adults, young people are especially at risk of developing mental health disorders as they face many new pressures and challenges in their daily lives.
Globally, it is estimated that 10-20 per cent of adolescents experience mental health conditions.
Commenting on the study, a Consultant Psychiatrist at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Ikeja, Dr. Olayinka Atilola, told PUNCH HealthWise in an interview that exercise is absolutely important for improved mental health both in terms of prevention of mental health problems and treatment of existing mental health conditions.
The psychiatrist explained, “It is has been documented that exercise is the most important medicine because its physical activities has been established overwhelmingly
in the literature to improve the mental health of individuals.
“In the management of certain health conditions especially depression, we usually recommend exercise as one of the interventions for depression.”
On sleep, Atilola said, “When we count hours, hours is good but the important thing also is for us to be able to look at the sleep architecture and see whether you are getting the most appropriate mix of the different stages of sleep.
“So, sleep quality is certainly as important as quantity if not more important.”
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