By Matt Evans
In times like this, with the pandemic keeping friends and family apart over the holidays, that we all need to safeguard our mental health more than ever before. It can be easy to focus on other things and let periods of low mood define us, but our happiness and sense of well-being are as important as our physical and financial needs. We need to focus on our mental health as much as we do those other needs.
Scientists from the University of Otago surveyed more than 1100 young adults from New Zealand and the United States about their sleep, physical activity, diet, and mental health.
The researchers discovered sleep quality, rather than sleep quantity, was the strongest predictor of mental health and well-being. In addition, exercise and eating more raw fruits and vegetables were found to be strongly associated with good mental health.
The study's author said: "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".
Those who slept 9.7 hours per night had fewest symptoms of depression, while those who slept for the recommended eight hours had the highest recorded levels of well-being.
The beneficial effects of good sleep, raw fruit and vegetable intake and exercise are usually studied alone. But when all together, this study found people who scored highly in all three categories had better mental health, making them the three "pillars" of physical and mental well-being.
They're also habits which all compliment each other. Exercise will become easier if you swap processed foods for more fruit and veg, as your healthy diet will ensure you stay fit. If you exercise and eat healthier, your sleep quality will also improve.
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To address the three pillars and balance your mental health, there are three very easy things you can do to get started:
- Set yourself a bedtime and adhere to it every night, if you can. This trains the body to get the right amount of sleep.
- Swap sugary snacks like chocolate bars and cookies with a piece of raw fruit, like an apple.
- Set aside 30 minutes for gentle exercise, three times a week.
One of the easiest kinds of exercise to get into is walking to lose weight. It's low-intensity, can be done anytime, anywhere, and it's easy to incorporate into your day. All you need to get started is a set of the best shoes for walking and some comfortable winter clothes.
Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and Channel Editor at Fit&Well. He's previously written for titles like Men's Health and Red Bull, and covers all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen kickboxer and runner. His top fitness tip? Stretch.
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