7 Lifestyle Factors That Impact Mental Health
August is National Wellness Month. This awareness event encourages people to focus on creating healthy routines, self-care, and stress management. The lifestyle habits a person engages in daily have a significant impact on mental health. Studies have shown that lifestyle can have a positive effect on symptoms of depression and anxiety, life satisfaction, and self-perceived mental health (Velten et al., 2018).
The world health organization defines mental health as, “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” Researchers are increasingly acknowledging that absence of mental illness does not necessarily imply a state of psychological well-being. Positive mental health is defined as the presence of general emotional and psychological well-being, while mental health problems can be defined as the presence of psychopathological symptoms (i.e., depression, anxiety, bipolar affective disorder). Mental health exists on a continuum that is influenced by our life circumstances.
Researchers (Velten et al., 2018) conducted a longitudinal study that aimed to evaluate what lifestyle choices promote psychological well-being and reduce mental health problems. They studied German and Chinese students, to understand any cultural difference among an individualistic society (Germany) and a collectivist society (China). Within the study, they assessed the participants at baseline and 1-year later. The lifestyle variables they studied included body mass index, frequency of physical and mental activities (i.e., exercise, going to a museum, painting), frequency of alcohol consumption, smoking, vegetarian diet, and social rhythm irregularity (i.e. going to bed and waking up at the same each day and eating meals at the same each day).
What the study found was better mental health at baseline was correlated with a lower body mass index, high frequency of physical and mental activities, non-smoker, non- vegetarian, and a consistent social rhythm. Gender and physical activity were also positive predictors of mental health. Most lifestyle choices compared across samples except for frequency of alcohol consumption. In Germany, students who consumed more alcohol had better mental health, while the Chinese students reported poorer mental health. These findings from this study suggest that actively practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors can increase psychological well-being and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Let’s now take a closer look at the 7 lifestyle factors that were identified (Velten et al., 2018).
1) Lower BMI/maintain BMI within the normal weight range
A person is considered to be obese when they have a BMI that is higher than 30. The CDC has a BMI calculator that can be shared with clients to help them understand their BMI and the risks associated with being overweight or obese. In a sample of 886 women, higher BMI was associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression, and lower positive mental health. In addition, a meta-analysis of longitudinal studies, identified that a BMI of 25-29.99 (which is considered to be overweight) also predicted future symptoms of depression and anxiety. Working with clients on maintaining healthy weight can positively impact their mental health.
2) Be physically active
Frequent physical activity improves both physical health and mental health. The recommendations are to engage in moderate intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walk) for 150 minutes every week (i.e., 30 minutes, 5 days a week) AND muscle strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all of the major muscle groups (i.e., legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms). Or engage in vigorous intensity aerobic activity (running or jogging) for 75 minutes per week, and muscle strengthening 2 or more days. Here is a helpful handout that you can share with clients regarding physical activity.
3) Engage in meaningful mental or cultural activities
Mental activities include any activity that utilizes the mind, especially when doing something creative. These activities can by receptive (i.e., visiting a museum or going to a concert) and/or active (i.e., playing an instrument, writing, or painting). Mental activities are associated with better mental health and increased life satisfaction.
4) Reduce alcohol consumption/drink in moderation
The studies that investigate alcohol consumption and mental health are inconsistent. Researchers believe this is due to confounding variables and continue to study this important topic. The CDC recently launched a screening tool along with a public health campaign to drink less alcohol. This screening tool is an excellent resource that can be utilized with clients, and includes readiness to change, and goal setting as part of the tool.
5) Do not smoke
The research is clear on smoking – it negatively impacts both physical and mental health. Smoking continues to be the leading cause of preventable mortality. It is strongly associated with mental health problems, and is a modifiable risk factor that can significantly impact ones health. Supporting clients to quit smoking is an important consideration in mental health. There are many good medicines on the market to help a person quit along with smoking cessation programs.
6) Eat a healthy well-balanced diet
Interestingly, a vegetarian diet has been associated with lower positive mental health and more mental health problems. Researchers are still trying to understand how a vegetarian diet may impact mental health. To date the best-known diet is a well-balanced healthy diet. The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate continues to be one of the best resources to educate people on what a healthy well-balanced diet looks like.
7) Practice a regular social rhythm
Having a regular schedule is correlated with better mental health. According to Velten et al. (2018), this lifestyle factor showed the strongest association when compared to other lifestyle choices. Working with clients to create consistent routines may help them to increase their mental health.
In addition, you may want to consider utilizing the 5 A’s Behavior Change Model. This model can be used when working with clients to change any health behaviors. This model includes the following steps.
- Assess: Ask about or assess lifestyle risk factors that may be impacting the person’s mental health.
- Advise: Give clear, specific and personalized behavior change advice, including information about personal health harms and benefits.
- Agree: Work with the client to set goals based on their own interests, health goals, and motivation for change.
- Assist: Support the person to address any barriers, attain new skills, and confidence to support the new lifestyle habit – this includes connecting people to resources.
- Arrange: Check-in with the client on their goals, and how their new lifestyle habits are going. Provide assistance and support as needed.
A holistic approach to care is imperative for mental health treatment. Physical health and mental health are intimately connected, and lifestyle habits are a fundamental aspect of helping clients attain better mental health. This month, commit to talking to your clients about their lifestyle habits.
Some helpful questions when working with clients to change their health habits and better their health include:
- What does their best health look like?
- What does their best health feel like?
- What is important to them about their health?
- What is getting in the way of their best health?
- What are habits that they want to consider changing?
- What health goals are they considering?
- What barriers do they anticipate?
- What are measure of success?
Additional resources may be found on the CASAT OnDemand Resources & Downloads page.
This article was developed by Heather Haslem, M.S. Feel free to use, link to, or distribute this information. A link to our site and attribution would be much appreciated.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (2012). Five major steps to intervention (the “5 A’s”). AHRQ. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from https://www.ahrq.gov/prevention/guidelines/tobacco/5steps.html
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Support your patients with behavior change strategies. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/professionals/clinical-tools-patient-management/diabetes/game-plan-preventing-type-2-diabetes/how-talk-patients-about-prediabetes-diagnosis/support-your-patients-with-behavior-change-strategies
Velten, J., Bieda, A., Scholten, S., Wannemüller, A., & Margraf, J. (2018). Lifestyle choices and mental health: A longitudinal survey with German and Chinese students. BMC Public Health, 18(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-018-5526-2
World Health Organization. (2022, July). Mental health: Strengthening our response. World Health Organization. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response
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