Lifestyle and Mental Health
- Category: Personal | Health | Human Development | Individual Quality of Life | Social | Community Quality of Life
Lifestyle changes — such as getting more exercise, time in nature, or helping others — can be as effective as drugs or counseling to treat an array of mental illnesses.
Walsh, Roger. (2011). Lifestyle and Mental Health. American Psychologist. 66 (7):579-92. doi: 10.1037/a0021769
The author reviewed research on the effects of what he calls “therapeutic lifestyle changes,” or TLCs, including exercise, nutrition and diet, relationships, recreation, relaxation and stress management, religious or spiritual involvement, spending time in nature, and service to others.
According to research reviewed in the paper, the many often unrecognized TLC benefits include:
Exercise not only helps people feel better by reducing anxiety and depression. It can help children do better in school, improve cognitive performance in adults, reduce age-related memory loss in the elderly, and increase new neuron formation in the brain.
Diets rich in vegetables, fruits and fish may help school performance in children, maintain cognitive functions in adults, as well as reduce symptoms in affective and schizophrenic disorders.
Spending time in nature can promote cognitive functions and overall well-being.
Good relationships can reduce health risks ranging from the common cold to strokes as well as multiple mental illnesses, and can enhance psychological well-being dramatically.
Recreation and fun can reduce defensiveness and foster social skills.
Relaxation and stress management can treat a variety of anxiety, insomnia, and panic disorders.
Meditation has many benefits. It can improve empathy, sensitivity and emotional stability, reduce stress and burnout, and enhance cognitive function and even brain size.
Religious and spiritual involvement that focuses on love and forgiveness can reduce anxiety, depression and substance abuse, and foster well-being.
Contribution and service, or altruism, can enhance joy and generosity by producing a “helper’s high.” Altruism also benefits both physical and mental health, and perhaps even extends lifespan. A major exception the paper notes is “caretaker burnout experienced by overwhelmed family members caring for a demented spouse or parent.” (Press release)