The most beneficial ways to kickstart strong mental health for 2020

Most people take some leave over the summer, which opens the opportunity to do activities and set up new patterns that will give us a head-start on health into the new year.

For many, it will include things that may boost mental – as well as physical – health, but given time is still at a premium (even on leave) what are the most beneficial activities to kick-start strong mental health for 2020?

And while all hobbies are good for you, different hobbies also have different effects.Credit:iStock

We’ve talked to a few experts to help sort out the must-haves from the nice-to-haves, and it seems that getting into the habit of exercising regularly; starting a new hobby and prioritising sleep are the best ways to set yourself up for a healthier next decade.

Start a new (exercise) habit

Post-Christmas guilt is a real thing: every January, gyms report record membership sign ups, with people eager to shrug off their gluttonous last week of December and start the New Year afresh.

Membership sales even spike as much as 40 per cent during January as people look to kickstart a healthy new year.

And while people may start off going to the gym, their good intentions are soon superseded by the reality of a busy life.

As consumer research group Canstar Blue found last year, more than half (54 per cent) gym members don't turn up much, while findings from personal finance app Pocketbook show that of those who do sign up to a gym in the new year, one third don’t even see it through to the middle of the year with their memberships.

“When it comes to exercise, it’s important to find what you like and stick to it,” says Dr Mandy Hagstrom, a lecturer in exercise science at UNSW Medicine and a weightlifter herself.

“And the holidays are a good time to create new exercise habits.”

This doesn’t need to mean taking out a gym membership or signing up to the next cross fit or F45 program: “While in an ideal world, people should be doing both strength and cardio exercises, anything that raises the heart rate and makes breathing harder is a good start,” she says.

And while January is traditionally a time where many people make (often unsustainable) New Year’s resolutions, the key to being healthy is to keep it up – not the intensity.

A recent study (of which Dr Hagstrom is the lead author) found that how often women train has greater impact on strength building than increasing weights, which exercise they do or the variety of exercises.

To make things even better, little-known research from the University of South Australia has found that when people use pleasure as a guide when it comes to exercise, they actually create receptors in their brain which will not only keep them coming back from more – but also actually steadily increase their fitness.

“Typically, when we allow people to self select their exercise intensity, they automatically choose an intensity that is pleasant,” says lead researcher and professor of exercise and sports science Gaynor Parfitt.

“People will usually choose an intensity that is at the boundary between aerobic — that point where you’re getting a little bit breathless but not so bad that you’re feeling bad about it.

“Basically, they choose the intensity that will get them fit.”

So if you plan to smash yourself this coming January because that’s what you think you need to do to get fit, think again: Professor Parfitt says the best guide to exercise is to use the “talk test”.

“If you can hold a conversation while walking briskly or running, then you’re working to a moderate intensity that will get you fit,” she says.

Take on a new hobby

Having a hobby is a great way to spend your spare time and unwind from your daily routine.

Whether it's learning a new skill, doing something outdoors, reading, or doing something musical or artistic, spending time on an activity that you enjoy can really impact your health and wellbeing.

It may seem finding time for a hobby is near impossible. Yet, the health benefits – and particularly mental health benefits – of engaging in a regular hobby you enjoy are well documented.

“Most hobbies fall into several categories,” says Jayashri Kulkarni, a professor of psychiatry at the Alfred Health and Monash University.

“You have the physical activity type hobbies, bordering on sports activities, and then you have the other groups, which are more quiet types, such as collection hobbies, arts and crafts etc.

“What’s important is that all of those will have a meditative and relaxing aspect to them. And after the hectic time of a year's hard work, there’s a sense of wanting to take up a hobby that may provide extra relaxation.”

And while all hobbies are good for you, different hobbies also have different effects: music, for instance, has many health benefits and can help people cope with stress, manage emotions in addition to being a great way to connect with others.

Drawing, painting, or moulding objects from clay has also been scientifically proven to help people to deal with different kinds of trauma, and can even help people “express experiences that are too difficult to put into words, such as a diagnosis of cancer."

Writing is also associated with a number of mental and physical health benefits, including improvements in memory, stress levels, sleep, and even trauma.

And it’s not just limited to creative hobbies: as Curtin University researchers found, people who engage in sporting, learning and volunteering activities outside work are more likely to get a better night’s sleep and be more proactive in their job.

Professor Kulkarni says the most important thing when it comes to choosing a hobby is to pick something you enjoy – and can sustain when the holidays are over.

“Make sure that the hobby is something that's sustainable over the year – don't go hard over the holidays and then when it comes to the rest of the year, you suddenly realise you don’t have the time or energy to keep up,” she says.

“And pick something that suits – not everybody is sporty, artistic or musical. Hobbies should be fun; there's no no point taking up something you don’t love becomes then it becomes a workload rather than a hobby.”

Establish good sleep habits

Given that nearly half the country seems to be permanently sleep deprived (the Royal Australasian College of Physicians says that between 33 and 45 per cent of Australian adults don’t get enough sleep), over the last few years, the issue has become so serious that the federal government even launched an inquiry into Sleep Health Awareness in Australia.

It seems like a great idea to finally catch up on long-lost sleep in the holidays. Yet experts say that may not be a good idea: instead of oversleeping, it’s actually better to continue your usual sleep patterns (but only if they’re already good).

“The best strategy for sleep over the holidays is to stick as closely to your sleep routine as possible,” says Dr Sophie Li, Clinical Research Manager from the Black Dog Institute.

“The holiday period is usually a time of more partying, going out, staying up late, eating and drinking more, and this can disrupt our sleep patterns.”

For anyone who’s suffered from insomnia (or even a couple nights of broken sleep) the value of a good night’s sleep goes undisputed – as do its benefits for our mental health.

Research shows a clear link between sleep and mental health: better sleep is associated with mental wellbeing across the lifespan, from adolescence all the way through to old age.

“Sleep and mental health go hand in hand; if someone has poor sleep, they’re at a much greater risk of experiencing poor mental health, and at higher risk of developing a diagnosed mental illness,” says Dr Li.

Sleep has two main functions: physically, our bodies require periods of sleep to grow muscle, repair tissue and synthesise hormones. It is also vitally important for our cognition and retention of memories.

“We know that when we learn new information during the day, that memory is stored in our short term memory,” Dr Li says. “What sleep does is transfer that short term memory into an enduring and long term memory. This is how learning happens.”

The Sleep Foundation recommends that adults aged 18 to 64 get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night; adults older than 65 about seven or eight hours; while teenagers should be aiming for eight to 10 hours.

“The holiday period is an opportunity to develop a good sleep routine, and one you want to maintain throughout the rest of your year,” says Dr Li.

“While it’s the festive season, try to avoid big meals and drinking large amounts of alcohol before bed, as those can disrupt sleep. Also give yourself time to relax and wind down before bed – it’s amazing what 30 minutes downtime can do for your sleep.”

Dr Li also advises against napping, which she says is detrimental to establishing a good circadian rhythm (an internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours).

“When people aren't in their normal routines, such as not going to work etc, it may seem like a good idea to nap – but that’s not going to help your sleep in the long term,” she says.

“If you really have to nap, try to keep it to less than 30 minutes.”

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