Lifestyle interventions for mental health

Previously, I’ve written about the effect several lifestyle factors such as exercise, outdoor space, food, and self care can have on our mental health. Whilst there is some evidence that all of these factors can impact our mental health, how can this knowledge be used to create an effective intervention to help improve people’s mental health and wellbeing?

Efficacy of lifestyle interventions for mental health and wellbeing

Lifestyle interventions are any type of programme or activity which aims to modify our behaviour. When researching the efficacy of interventions, it is useful to look for systematic reviews – papers which have systematically searched and collated other existing studies, rather than to look at the results of single studies individually. There have been a number of systematic reviews published in this area, which seem to indicate that lifestyle interventions can have a positive effect on people’s mental health and wellbeing. For example, Verhaeghe et al (2011) examined the effectiveness of exercise and diet interventions in people with a severe mental illness and found some programmes were successful in reducing BMI or body weight and increasing quality of life.  Another systematic review, this time focusing on interventions to change health behaviours (e.g. stopping smoking, physical activity) in people with and without a diagnosed mental illness found that most studies reported an improvement in mental health and wellbeing, or quality of life (Dale et al, 2014). The authors of this review hypothesised that lifestyle interventions may be more acceptable to patients who struggle to engage with traditional mental health services.

Incentives/Barriers to taking part in lifestyle interventions

Lifestyle interventions often target people with severe mental illness (e.g. schizophrenia), as they are at risk of having poorer overall health than the general population. Roberts & Bailey (2011) examined the factors which could encourage people with severe mental illness to take part in lifestyle interventions. They found that having supportive staff, a reward or incentive for participation and group support helped encourage people to attend. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people were more likely to attend if they found some benefit of taking part in the programme, for example through increased knowledge or a reduction in symptoms. In contrast, barriers to taking part in lifestyle interventions centred on the symptoms associated with mental illness or side effects from medication.

The future of lifestyle interventions

Advances in technology, particularly the rise in smartphone use has allowed researchers to develop technological lifestyle interventions which can be used in addition to existing treatment. Apps can be used to help track symptoms or moods, provide information, encourage healthy behaviours or even provide CBT (Luxton et al, 2011). Recently, apps have been developed to help people with severe mental illness at work (Nicholson et al, 2018), reduce rates of postnatal depression (Chan et al, 2019) and reduce loneliness in young people (Lim et al, 2019), just to name a few. However, researchers have acknowledged that more research needs to be done to refine and test digital interventions to ensure optimum effectiveness.

Thanks for reading – let me know if there are any other topics you’d like me to cover in the comments below!


Chan, K.L., Leung, W.C., Tiwari, A., Or, K.L. and Ip, P., 2019. Using Smartphone-Based Psychoeducation to Reduce Postnatal Depression Among First-Time Mothers: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR mHealth and uHealth7(5), p.e12794.

Dale, H., Brassington, L. and King, K., 2014. The impact of healthy lifestyle interventions on mental health and wellbeing: a systematic review. Mental Health Review Journal19(1), pp.1-26.

Lim, M.H., Rodebaugh, T.L., Eres, R., Long, K., Penn, D.L. and Gleeson, J.F., 2019. A pilot digital intervention targeting loneliness in youth mental health. Frontiers in psychiatry10, p.604.

Luxton, D.D., McCann, R.A., Bush, N.E., Mishkind, M.C. and Reger, G.M., 2011. mHealth for mental health: Integrating smartphone technology in behavioral healthcare. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice42(6), p.505.

Nicholson, J., Wright, S.M., Carlisle, A.M., Sweeney, M.A. and McHugo, G.J., 2018. The WorkingWell mobile phone app for individuals with serious mental illnesses: proof-of-concept, mixed-methods feasibility study. JMIR mental health5(4), p.e11383.

Roberts, S.H. and Bailey, J.E., 2011. Incentives and barriers to lifestyle interventions for people with severe mental illness: a narrative synthesis of quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods studies. Journal of Advanced Nursing67(4), pp.690-708.

Verhaeghe, N., De Maeseneer, J., Maes, L., Van Heeringen, C. and Annemans, L., 2011. Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of lifestyle interventions on physical activity and eating habits in persons with severe mental disorders: a systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity8(1), p.28.


Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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