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Regular physical exercise is one of the healthy lifestyle habits that can lower the risk of depression. Javier Díez/Stocksy
  • Seven healthy lifestyle factors have been identified by researchers as reducing the risk of depression.
  • Getting good quality sleep, regular physical activity, frequent social connection, never smoking and limiting alcohol consumption were among the lifestyle factors identified.
  • Researchers reported that healthy lifestyle factors could be more important than genetic risk factors for depression.

A healthy lifestyle involving physical activity, social connection, good quality sleep, and a healthy diet can lower the risk of depression.

That’s according to a new study published today in the journal Nature Mental Health.

In it, researchers identified seven lifestyle factors they say reduce the risk of depression.

“Although our DNA – the genetic hand we’ve been dealt – can increase our risk of depression, we’ve shown that a healthy lifestyle is potentially more important,” said Barbara Sahakian, a co-author of the study and a professor in the the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge in England, in a press statement.

“Some of these lifestyle factors are things we have a degree control over, so trying to find ways to improve them – making sure we have a good night’s sleep and getting out to see friends, for example – could make a real difference to people’s lives,” she added.

The researchers listed these seven lifestyle factors as reducing the risk of depression:

  • Having a healthy diet
  • Regular physical activity
  • Never smoking
  • Limiting alcohol consumption to moderate amounts
  • Having frequent social connection
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Keeping sedentary behavior to a minimum

The researchers examined data from almost 290,000 people in the UK Biobank over a nine-year period. Of them, 13,000 experienced depression.

The data included genetic, health, and lifestyle information.

The researchers grouped the participants into three categories based on how many of the identified healthy lifestyle factors a person adhered to. The categories were unfavorable, intermediate, and favorable.

Researchers reported that people in the intermediate group were 41% less likely to develop depression compared with those who were in the unfavorable group. Those is the favorable group were 57% less likely to develop depression.

Numerous factors can impact a person’s risk of developing depression.

Environmental, biological, genetic, and psychological factors are all believed to play a role.

To determine the relationship between lifestyle factors, genetic risk and developing depression, the researchers assigned each participant a genetic risk score.

To determine this score, the researched accounted for genetic variants that are known to be linked with a risk of depression.

They found that for participants with a high, medium, and low genetic risk for depression, following a healthy lifestyle reduced risk of depression.

Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in California, says the findings of the study aren’t surprising.

“Our not-too-distant ancestors had lifestyles that involved regular physical activity, low sedentary behaviors, abundant, social interaction, healthy diets, and often low to moderate alcohol consumption,” she told Medical News Today. “Even smoking is a relatively modern phenomenon. It makes sense that the activities that have allowed humans to survive over time would be necessary for our overall well-being. As such, it comes as no surprise when research continues to find that our deviation from healthy, living habits our ancestors embraced will work against our overall health.”

“Although we cannot change our genetic risk factors, we can embrace a healthy lifestyle to minimize the impact and expression of any negative genetic factors,” Manly added. “When we use our personal agency to make healthy lifestyle choices, we affect our well-being in positive ways. On both cognitive and emotional levels, we are reinforcing our sense of personal power when we make healthy choices. And, on a physical level, we reinforce the sense of positivity and empowerment when our bodies feel good. Through this cycle of positive reinforcement, healthy lifestyle choices can significantly impact mental health issues, such as depression.”

Of all of the healthy lifestyle factors identified, the researchers concluded that sleep was the most important factor.

They said that getting between seven to nine hours of sleep a night reduced the risk of depression, even treatment-resistant depression, by 22%.

“When we go to sleep, our brains go to work performing critical function that affects cognition and memory. When we sleep, our body removes toxins, such as beta amyloid, which is implicated in cognitive decline, and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate sleep really can lead to challenges with that, and challenges to managing emotion, which increases the risk of future depression,” Shannel Kassis Elhelou, PsyD, a geropsychology and neuropsychology fellow at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Brain Wellness and Lifestyle Programs in California, told Medical News Today.

“But this also could leave us with the question of what comes first? Is it the depression that’s coming first, which is affecting your sleep? Or is it the sleep that’s affecting our depression? Because if you’re dealing with depression, everyday stressors, like work related stress, familiar problems, or other common things that people tend to worry about can result in more frequent difficulty falling and staying asleep, especially when compared to those who don’t experience the same stressors,” Elhelou said.

A healthy diet was found to reduce the risk of depression by 6%, moderate alcohol consumption reduced risk by 11%, regular physical activity by 14%, low-to-moderate sedentary behavior by 13%, and never smoking by 20%.

Having frequent social connection was found to be the most protective factor against recurrent depressive disorder. It reduced overall risk of depression by 18%.

Karen Osilla, PhD, an associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University in California, says not engaging in these healthy behaviors can make feelings of depression even worse.

“Not doing those factors perpetuate depressed mood – when we don’t connect socially with the people we used to laugh with, when we don’t have healthy sleep habits, it’s a snowball effect and it becomes easier to believe our depressed thoughts about worthlessness and feeling “less than,” she told Medical News Today.

“When we think ‘I’m not good at anything or I can never catch a break,’ people experiencing depression have a challenging time distinguishing thoughts from facts,” she explained. “In cognitive behavioral therapy I focus on restructuring these maladaptive thoughts so that people can start restructuring their mindset – our thoughts don’t define us. Depression is very treatable, it’s one of the most common mental health conditions that has several treatments with solid backing – self-help books, mindfulness, medication, activity scheduling, cyclic breathing and therapy are all options depending on the level of care someone wants to pursue.”