Youth Healthy Behaviors and Mental Health

This post examines the relationship between the big three healthy lifestyle behaviors of physical activity, nutrition and specifically breakfast eating, and sleep with mental health indicators among US high school students.  In addition, published research examining these associations were examined. 

Using the Youth Online YRBS data analysis tool (CDC, 2019) for all high school students in the country, cross-tabs were run comparing each of the big-three healthy behaviors (one-hour physical activity, eating breakfast, eight-hours of sleep per day: yes/no) against various mental health measures (yes/no): https://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/App/Default.aspx 

Youth who at breakfast daily, got eight or more hours sleep each night and got one or more hours of physical activity every day were significantly less likely to feel sad and hopeless, seriously consider suicide, planned to commit suicide and attempt suicide than those adolescents not eating breakfast, getting adequate sleep and getting physical activity regularly (p’s =.0000-.008).  

In addition, youth who at breakfast every morning were less likely to have been injured while attempting suicide than adolescents not eating breakfast daily (p=.0001). 

Published research on the role of breakfast and nutrition and mental health showed that: 

  1. The frequency of eating breakfast was associated with mental health among middle and high school students: https://www.kjfp.or.kr/journal/view.html?uid=824&vmd=Full&
  2. Improvements in diet quality were mirrored by improvements in mental health over a follow-up period among adolescents: https://nutrition.bmj.com/content/early/2021/08/27/bmjnph-2020-000205
  3. Eating breakfast away from home and especially skipping breakfast were prospectively associated with more adolescent emotional/behavioral problems: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jea/advpub/0/advpub_JE20210081/_article/-char/ja/
  4. For every additional food group eaten at breakfast, the associated total mental health score improved among adolescents: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19026092/
  5. Youth who consumed five or more portions of fruit and veggies a day had the highest scores for mental wellbeing: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/09/210928075004.htm 

Research on youth sleep patterns and mental health indicated: 

  1. Childhood sleep problems may persist and predict adolescent mental health: https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/44/3/zsaa190/5916520?login=true
  2. Insufficient and poor-quality sleep is associated with worse mood and emotion regulation, as well as increased likelihood of developing a mood or anxiety disorder, and heightened risk of suicidal ideation among youth: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128153734000320
  3. Abnormal sleep patterns may serve as markers of prodromal or untreated mental disorders among adolescents: https://www.jpeds.com/article/s0022-3476(16)31235-5/fulltext
  4. Sleep duration and cognitive-emotional arousal were associated with adolescents’ perceived stress during the COVID-19 pandemic: https://capmh.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13034-021-00399-x
  5. Excessive social media use is linked to poor sleep quality and negative mental health in youth: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S108707922030157X 

Lastly, research on youth physical activity and mental health showed that: 

  1. Higher or improved fitness and physical activity are associated with better cognitive health and performance among adolescents: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1469029218303315
  2. School-related physical activity interventions may reduce anxiety, increase resilience, improve well-being and increase positive mental health in children and adolescents: https://sportsmedicine-open.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40798-020-00254-x
  3. More physical activity and less screen time were associated with better mental health among youth: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2784611
  4. Youth physical activity/exercise is a promising mental health promotion and early intervention strategy: https://bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/6/1/e000677.abstract 

The following conclusions are based on the aforementioned analyses of YRBS data on adolescent healthy behaviors and mental health as well as the published research sited: 

  • Health risk behaviors and the amount and frequency of healthy behaviors are associated with negative and positive mental health outcomes, respectively, among adolescents highlighting the benefit of integrating multiple health behaviors within single preventive interventions for reducing mental illness.
  • Substance use and behavioral health professionals, teachers, coaches and parents should provide youth with motivational strategies to initiate and maintain recommended levels of physical activity, healthy nutrition and sleep and avoid alcohol and drug use to promote both physical and mental well-being and prevent youth mental health problems.

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