New research shows small lifestyle changes are linked to differences in teen mental health over time

Judging by recent headlines and Political ideasYou might think that screen time is the only lifestyle behavior that influences teen well-being.

But young people are struggling to cope with the growing mental health problemsIt is essential that we do not remain tunnel-visioned and instead remember all the lifestyle factors that can play a role.

Our research, published todayAustralian high school students from 71 schools in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia were followed. Over time, improvements in sleep, fruit and vegetable intake and exercise were associated with small but significant improvements in mental health.

The opposite was also true when it came to unhealthy behaviors such as screen time, junk food, alcohol consumption and tobacco.

A comprehensive look at adolescent lifestyles

Our New study A study of more than 4,400 Australian high school students looked at a range of lifestyle behaviours: sleep, moderate to vigorous physical activity, sedentary (inactive) screen time during recreational activities, fruit and vegetable consumption, junk food and sugary drink consumption, alcohol consumption and smoking.

First, we asked Year 7 pupils (students aged 12-13) to report their levels of these lifestyle behaviours and to rate their psychological distress (a general indicator of poor mental health) using a known measuring scale.

We then examined how changes in each of the lifestyle behaviors between Year 7 and Year 10 (age 15–16) were linked to levels of psychological distress at Year 10. Importantly, we took into account the level of psychological distress that participants reported at Year 7 as well as their lifestyle behaviors at Year 7. This means that we can look at the average benefits associated with behavior change, no matter where people started.

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Our research showed that increasing healthy behaviors over time was associated with lower psychological distress. In contrast, increasing health risk behaviors was associated with greater psychological distress.

How much difference does it make?

On average, looking at change between year 7 and year 10, each one-hour increase in sleep per night was associated with a 9% reduction in psychological distress.

Each additional day of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week was associated with a 3% reduction in psychological distress. Each additional daily serving of fruit or vegetables was associated with a 4% reduction in psychological distress.

In contrast, each additional hour of screen time was associated with a 2% increase in psychological distress, as was each unit increase in consumption of junk food or sugary drinks.

Because drinking alcohol and smoking are less common in early adolescence, we only looked at whether or not they had drank or smoked alcohol in the past six months. We found that moving from not drinking in year 7 to drinking in year 10 was associated with a 17% increase in psychological distress. Moving from not smoking to smoking was associated with a 36% increase in psychological distress.

It is important to note that our study cannot definitively say that the change in lifestyle behaviour has caused the change in distress. The study also cannot take into account changes in a student’s circumstances, such as their family life or relationships. With the baseline survey conducted in 2019 and the Year 10 survey conducted in 2022, there was also the potential impact of COVID.

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But our longitudinal design (following the same subjects over a long period) and the way we structured the analysis help illustrate the relationship over time.

Our study did not measure vaping, but the evidence shows that, like smoking, it has clear effects. links to adolescent mental health.

What does this mean for teens and parents?

National guidelines for these behaviors set aspirational goals based on optimal health objectives. But movement patterns and dietary guidelines This may seem like something out of reach for many teens. In fact, most of the participants in our study were not meeting guidelines for physical activity, sleep, screen time, and vegetable consumption by the 10th grade.

What our research shows is that a healthy lifestyle change doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Even relatively small changes — getting an extra hour of sleep each night, eating an extra serving of fruit or vegetables each day, cutting back on screen time by one hour, or adding an extra day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week — are linked to improvements in mental health. And accumulating changes across multiple areas will likely pay off even more for you.

Parents can play a big role in shaping lifestyle habits (even in the teen years!). Money and time can be obstacles, but anything parents can do within their means is a step in the right direction.

For example, Modeling healthy social media usedoing Affordable Changes to Your Grocery Shopping to improve nutritional content, or even Introducing fixed bedtimes. And parents can gather information so that young people can make decisions. positive choices around the use of alcohol, tobacco and other substances, including vaping.

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The biggest photograph

Lifestyle changes can contribute to improving adolescent mental health, but they are only one part of the puzzle. We cannot place the burden of addressing the youth mental health crisis solely on adolescent lifestyles. There is much to be done at school, community and policy levels to create a society that supports youth mental health.

Young people who have mental health problems may need professional support, and their parents and carers can help them. to accessTeenagers or young people can also get in touch Reach either Helpline for children directly to obtain resources and support.

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