Could sleep and exercise be key to easing the global burden of mental health?

When it comes to our mental wellbeing, we are not an island. What’s going on inside our heads is a direct reflection of what’s going on around us. We see this clearly in the mental and emotional strain caused by global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are many other ways that life’s adversities can chip away at our mental wellbeing or trigger serious mental illness. Within scientific circles, research has also regularly highlighted how life experience can influence both the onset and the trajectory of mental health disorders, emphasizing how important it is that clinicians consider a patient’s life situation when making a diagnosis or when choosing a therapeutic intervention.

On the other side of the coin, the close connection between mental wellbeing and life experience provides a window for making changes that can directly or indirectly benefit our mental health and wellbeing. Although we don’t always have full control over the adversities and traumas that we face, there are other aspects of how we live our lives that provide opportunities for self-management of our own mental wellbeing.

The role of sleep and exercise in mental health.

The importance of sleep is undisputed and over the last few decades, there have been a whole host of scientific studies that have tried to explain why sleep is so important not just to our bodies, but also to our brains. On top of this, there’s also lots of research demonstrating the grave consequences of poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation on both our mental and physical health. This includes things like performing more poorly on cognitively demanding activities and a heightened emotional and physical response to stressful situations, neither of which is helpful as we all try to navigate hectic daily schedules. And although scientists are still trying to understand the relationship between sleep and mental health, there is likely to be a negative feedback loop where poor sleep contributes to poorer mental wellbeing, which in turn leads to poorer sleep.

Similarly, when it comes to exercise then there are hundreds of scientific articles trying to understand how keeping physically active impacts our mental health and wellbeing. And while the benefits are hard to deny given the amount of supportive evidence, scientists still aren’t clear about the size of the benefit that exercise brings, nor how this benefit varies across different types of exercise and across individuals who perhaps present different mental health profiles.

Measuring sleep and exercise in the Mental Health Million Project

The Mental Health Million Project, which uses a free and anonymous assessment of mental wellbeing with a tool called the MHQ, tracks the ongoing mental health of the population to build a global map of mental wellbeing and help generate a better understanding of the drivers. To date, tens of thousands of people have already taken the MHQ.

So what can the Mental Health Million Project tell us about how sleep and exercise relate to a population’s mental wellbeing? And how we are faring along these dimensions?

The data we’ve collected so far tells us that a full 50% of those who hardly ever got enough sleep have or are at risk for a clinical disorder (red on the bar chart above). Contrast that to only 14% of those who get enough sleep all the time. In other words, people who rarely get enough sleep are almost four times as likely to experience mental health challenges.

That should be enough to send everyone to bed on time. Yet the data indicate that only 12% get enough sleep all of the time and almost half are seriously sleep-deprived.

Similarly, when we take a look at the frequency of exercise, 40% of those who report that they rarely or never exercise had or were at risk for a clinical disorder (red in the graph to the left). In contrast, only 18% of those who exercised 30 mins or more every day were at risk for a clinical disorder. In other words, non-exercisers are twice as likely to be experiencing serious mental health challenges.

Yet we also find that half of those who have taken part are not regular exercisers and a full quarter rarely or never exercise.

With this kind of profound difference, it’s entirely possible that mandating everyone to the gym and then straight to bed could have a significant impact on the burden of mental health. Yet more insights are needed into the direction of cause and effect, the nature of symptoms associated with poor sleep and exercise, and differences by factors such as age and gender.

Identifying the mental health challenges faced by different populations across the globe is an important step in being able to address them effectively. It is our hope that creating a data map of these challenges will not only help from a global surveillance perspective but will also improve understanding of the role of social and economic factors and life experiences, informing therapeutic intervention and policy decisions. FOR AN APPT CALL OR TEXT 480-668-8780