Skip to content

Combined, 7 lifestyle habits cut the risk of depression by more than half

A healthy lifestyle even protects those who are genetically predisposed to depression.
Two people laying down in a field, reflecting on their habits and contemplating their battles with depression.
Agustin Farias / Death to Stock
Key Takeaways
  • One of the largest and highest-quality observational studies to date shows that seven healthy lifestyle habits can drastically cut the risk of depression, even if one is genetically predisposed to the condition.
  • These habits are moderate alcohol consumption, a healthy diet, regular physical activity, an average of seven to nine hours of sleep per night, abstaining from smoking, avoiding sedentary behavior, and maintaining social connections.
  • Following a healthy lifestyle was associated with greater brain volumes and better immune and metabolic function, which all can factor in to depression.

One’s risk of depression is greatly tied to genetics. But a new analysis published in Nature Mental Health shows that following seven healthy lifestyle habits can dramatically slash that risk, and even overcome a genetic predisposition.

To conduct the study, researchers from Fudan University in China and the University of Cambridge in the UK utilized the expansive UK Biobank. The database contains in-depth genetic and health information from half a million UK participants. The wealth of data it provides is currently driving a much needed renaissance in high-quality epidemiological studies.

7 habits to fight depression

The researchers first looked at the self-reported lifestyle habits of 287,282 individuals, zeroing in on seven factors: alcohol consumption, diet, physical activity, sleep, smoking, sedentary behavior, and social connection. Then, perusing nine years of follow-up data, they monitored which individuals went on to experience depression, and noted how much each habit affected that risk. Here’s what they found:

1. Eating a healthy diet — defined as limiting refined grains, processed meats, and red meat while consuming lots of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish — decreased the risk of depression by 6%.

2. Drinking no more than one alcoholic drink per day for women and two for men reduced the risk by 11%.

3. Spending fewer than four hours per day outside of work watching TV or using a computer lowered the risk of depression by 13%.

4. Engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week was linked to a 14% reduction in risk.

5. Staying socially connected with friends and family reduced the risk of depression by 18%.

6. Never smoking was associated with a 20% decline in risk.

7. Sleeping seven to nine hours each night on average lowered the risk of depression by 22%.

The researchers found that individuals who followed at least five of these wholesome habits enjoyed a remarkable 57% decline in depression risk compared to individuals who followed one or none.

Nature vs. nurture

Next, analyzing genetic data for close to 200,000 individuals, they found that adopting at least five of the habits helped people genetically predisposed to depression avoid the condition.

“Participants with high genetic risk but favorable lifestyle had a lower risk of depression than those with intermediate or low genetic risk but unfavorable lifestyle and those with intermediate genetic risk and intermediate lifestyle,” they wrote.

“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,” author Barbara Sahakian, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement.

The researchers also had access to brain imaging data for 33,000 of the participants, which clued them in to a potential causal mechanism for lifestyle to affect depression. Better lifestyle scores were correlated with a greater volume of the orbitofrontal cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, “which might suggest improved cognitive control and emotion regulation,” they commented.

Blood work was also available for some of the subjects, which hinted at improved immune and metabolic function for participants following a healthy lifestyle.

It’s long been known that a healthy lifestyle can help prevent depression, but this is the highest quality observational study to date to evince that common knowledge and the first to convincingly quantify just how big of an effect it can have. New drug treatment solutions often attract a lot of headlines, but some of the most basic life choices — sleeping, not smoking, and exercising — can work wonders as well.


Up Next