The Latest Research: The Link Between Health Behaviors, Sleep, and Mental Health

By: SleepScore Labs  |  January 22nd, 2021

From birth to early adulthood, multiple factors – many of which are out of our control – play a role in mental health. Research shows that health behaviors that are mostly within our control such as sleeping enough, exercising often, and eating well can help combat negative mental health issues. A pair of recent studies looking at self-reported sleep, exercise, diet, and mental health in adolescents and young adults explored how these factors are interrelated.

Study 1:

Wickham, Amaraseka, Bartonicek, and Conner (2020) examined links between diet, exercise, and sleep in young adults aged 18-25 living in New Zealand or the U.S. The researchers asked about sleep quantity (how many hours of sleep they usually got), sleep quality (how refreshed did they feel upon waking up), physical activity (how often each week they exercised for at least 30 minutes), and diet (how often each week they ate raw fruits and vegetables, fast food, sweets, and soda). Additionally, they used the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale and the Flourishing Scale to gauge depressive symptoms and well-being, respectively.

On average, participants reported sleeping 7 hours each night, being somewhat refreshed each morning, exercising 3 days a week, and eating 3 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. While the average depressive symptom score indicated a risk of clinical depression, overall well-being was slightly positive. Although participants had negative feelings (felt depressed or bothered by things that normally don’t bother them), they still felt that they were living a meaningful life and engaging in interesting daily activities. The researchers also found that as depressive symptoms increased, well-being decreased; that physical activity was the second strongest predictor of depressive symptoms, and that diet was not a predictor of depression.

Sleep quality was the most important factor in predicting mental health and well-being in young adults and adolescents when compared to sleep quantity, diet, and exercise. In addition, getting more than 12 hours or less than 8 hours of sleep was associated with higher depressive symptoms and lower well-being. Exercise and diet were important but were secondary compared to the importance of sleep. Given that this study was correlational, causal conclusions cannot be drawn, and further research is needed to better understand these relationships.

Study 2:

A group of Brazilian researchers examined associations between daytime sleepiness and a variety of lifestyle behaviors in  876 adolescents (Malheiros, da Costa, Lopes, Chaput, and Silva, 2021) . The research participants completed a survey including a questionnaire designed to measure daytime sleepiness. They were also asked about the frequency and duration of physical activity, time spent using devices with screens (e.g., television, computer, smartphone), and what types of food they ate.

Excessive daytime sleepiness was present in just under half (46.6%) of participants. Results showed that less physical activity, more processed food consumption, and more time using social media were all associated with more daytime sleepiness. Although these results seem to imply that health behaviors such as poor diet, lack of exercise, and screen time are resulting in daytime sleepiness, it’s important to keep in mind that these results are correlational. For example, one possible explanation that the authors discuss is that excessive daytime sleepiness was preventing the participants from being physically active, but the direction of the relations between the different health behaviors cannot be known from the current study.

Health and Sleep

The complexities of how to best maintain our health can feel daunting, as we try to find enough time in the day to practice behaviors that promote optimal wellness. This can be especially challenging for adolescents and young adults, who are developing habits that may last a lifetime. Although correlational, one possible takeaway from this research is that if we focus on sleeping well, we may find it easier to take better care of ourselves in other ways too, which in turn may improve our mental health and wellness. Further research on the interactions among all of these important health behaviors is needed.

Article 1:

Wickham, S., Amaraseka, N.A., Bartonicek, A., & Conner, T.S. (2020). The big three health behaviors and mental health and well-being among young adults: a cross-sectional investigation of sleep, exercise, and diet. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.579205

Article 2:

Malheiros, L.E.A., da Costa, B.G.G., Lopes, M.V.V., Chaput, J. & Silva, K. (2021). Association between physical activity, screen time activities, diet patterns and daytime sleepiness in a sample of Brazilian adolescents. Sleep Medicine, 78, 1-6. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2020.12.004


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