A study from the University of Otago in New Zealand has found that getting good quality sleep, exercising frequently, and eating more raw fruits and vegetables are 3 keys to good mental health in young adults.

The study surveyed more than 1100 young adults in New Zealand and the United States about their sleep, physical activity, diet, and mental health. The findings were published in Frontiers in Psychology, where lead author Shay-Ruby Wickham said they found that sleep quality, rather than sleep quantity, was the strongest predictor of mental health.

“This is surprising because sleep recommendations predominantly focus on quantity rather than quality,” Wickham said in a prepared statement. “While we did see that both too little sleep—less than 8 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.”

Although sleep had the strongest correlation to mental health, the investigators said exercising and eating more raw fruits and vegetables were also important. Depressive symptoms were lowest in young adults who slept 9.7 hours per night, and feelings of well-being were highest for those who slept 8 hours per night.

Furthermore, well-being was highest for young adults who ate 4.8 servings of raw fruit and vegetables per day, and those who ate less than 2 servings or more than 8 servings reported lower feelings of well-being.

“Sleep, physical activity, and a healthy diet can be thought of as 3 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,” Wickham explained.

Senior author Tamlin Conner, PhD, said most prior research examined these health behaviors in isolation of each other, and stressed that the study’s findings were only correlations.

“We showed that they are all important for predicting which young adults are flourishing versus suffering,” Conner said in a prepared statement. “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.”

Otago study identifies ‘three pillars’ of good mental health for young adults [news release]. University of Otago; December 14, 2020. https://www.otago.ac.nz/news/news/otago759511.html. Accessed December 18, 2020.