Take It Easy

7 Lifestyle Habits Can Protect You From Depression

And you don't need to overhaul your life to feel a little bit better.

A dad, mom, daughter and son walking their dog on a hill by the sea.
Kei Uesugi/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Depression has become a problem of global import — the World Health Organization estimates that one in 20 adults experiences at least one depressive episode in their lifetime. But what are the risk factors of depression? Can you protect yourself against depression by adopting certain lifestyle habits? Researchers aimed to find out.

To that end, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and Fudan University recently examined data from 290,000 people, 13,000 of whom had been diagnosed with depression, to determine lifestyle characteristics common to those with and without depression. They compared the presence or absence of those lifestyle habits with the presence or absence of a genetic predisposition for developing anxiety to discover if any of the behaviors were protective, especially for those with a family history of depression. Their findings were published in the journal Nature Mental Health.

The team was able to isolate seven habits that are linked to a lower risk of developing depression or experiencing a depressive episode. And while the lifestyle habits may seem overwhelming if you don’t already follow them — especially if you’re a busy person, just trying to get by — it’s important to note that adopting even just one of these habits is associated with a healthier life, and that your best is the best you can do that day.

1. Healthy Sleep

The researchers found that regularly getting a good night’s sleep (of 7 to 9 hours a night) was the most significant indicator of mental well-being — reducing the risk of singular episodes of depression and the development of treatment-resistant depression by 22%.

This adds to a body of research confirming that sleep is a vital tool in your wellness arsenal; studies have also shown that consistent, deep sleep could prevent Alzheimer’s disease — and that inadequate sleep can be hurting your heart.

2. Socialization

The research team found that regularly socializing decreased the risk of developing depression by 18%. They also determined that social connection was the most protective of all of the different healthy lifestyle habits against recurrent episodes of depression. The researchers assessed the participants’ level of social connection using the “social isolation index,” which looks at three measurements of social isolation: how many people live in their homes, how often they see friends and family, and how often they go out and participate in social activities.

But that doesn’t mean that you need to go out every night to protect yourself (and in fact, that would probably burn you out, too!) A previous study found that high-quality social interactions, either in real life or via text, improved participants’ emotional well-being and overall mood at the end of the day. These findings coincide with an announcement by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy that Americans are facing an epidemic of loneliness, which not only negatively affects physical health but can also be a risk factor for depression.

3. Never Smoking

Never smoking reduced the risk of depression by 20%. One study, published in January, found that smoking directly contributes to depression, and risk of developing depression increases with both duration and volume of smoking. The risk of depression decreases if the smoker quits, and risk continues to decline with the longer the duration of cessation.

4. Physical Activity

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The team found that regular exercise, which researchers defined as 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly, or engaging in moderate activity five days a week and vigorous one day a week, for more than 10 minutes, decreases the risk of depression by 14%.

That might sound like too much for you. But you don’t need to be unrealistic about it or commit to hours in the gym every week. Any movement is good movement, and studies have shown that even as little as a few five-minute walks a day contribute to overall health. Plus, fresh air, especially in green spaces, is also found to be excellent for your brain (and may promote your kid’s brain development, too.)

5. Avoid Sedentary Behavior

Like introducing more physical activity to your day-to-day, avoiding low-to-moderate sedentary behavior reduces the risk of depression by 13%. Again, you don’t have to turn into a gym rat, but breaking up the daily desk job grind by taking a walk or even using a desk bike or standing desk can help.

6. Drink Less Alcohol

The study found that moderate alcohol consumption decreases participants’ risk of depression by 11%. Moderate alcohol consumption is considered one drink or less per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.

These findings complement a separate study published in 2021 that found that a small amount of alcohol can actually be beneficial for those with certain heart conditions. As in everything, moderation is key. Mountains of evidence prove the detrimental effects of binge drinking or daily drinking to excess. And remember: It’s okay to let a little bit loose every once in a while. Life is hard. We don’t always have to cope perfectly. All we can do is try our best!

7. Eat Well

Adopting a healthy diet can reduce your risk of depression, but not as much as getting a good night’s sleep or talking to a friend — research found it reduces your risk by 6%. Diets like the Mediterranean diet, the MIND diet, and the DASH diet have been shown to have positive effects on brain health and overall physical health, including decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.

“Some of these lifestyle factors are things we have a degree of 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,” study co-author Barbara Sahakian, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, explained in a statement.

Indeed, the study found that, based on what group participants were categorized in — unfavorable lifestyle (those who only adhered to zero to two healthy lifestyle habits), intermediate lifestyle (two to four healthy lifestyle habits), or favorable lifestyle (five to seven) they were at different levels of likelihood of developing depression. Those who were in the intermediate lifestyle, who may not have followed every healthy habit to the T, were 41% less likely to develop depression compared to their unfavorable counterparts. The favorable folks were almost 60% less likely to.

The habits are quite a list, we know, and it can feel overwhelming, especially for new parents, covered in baby poop, just trying to adjust to their new lives, or people who are already living with depression and struggle with these habits. However, previous studies have shown that even small changes can have a lasting impact on both physical and mental health. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing or even all or some situation. An extra walk here or there, swapping out a starchy dinner for a to-go salad, or switching to water earlier in the night when drinking can make a difference.

In other words, changes that may feel overwhelming to make happen don’t have to be life-altering — they can be tiny building blocks that add up to big changes.

“We’re used to thinking of a healthy lifestyle as being important to our physical health, but it’s just as important for our mental health,” said co-author Dr. Christelle Langley.