Self-Care for Teens: a Boon for Mental Health

Self-Care for Teens: a Boon for Mental Health

Teens are getting too little sleep, not enough exercise and spending far too much time online. Research tells us so (if you need proof), and it’s also clear that when teens don’t take care of themselves, it can affect their mental health.

That’s all the more reason parents should teach their kids about the fundamentals of good self-care. And that means getting back to the basics, such as eating well, getting plenty of sleep and exercising more. That may be easier said than done, as adults know. But if you want your teen to live a healthier life, it’s important to pay attention to these three pillars of health.

Here’s what you should know about the benefits of these forms of self-care for kids – and what happens if they’re ignored.

Establishing Healthy Eating Habits

Most have heard the saying, “You are what you eat” – and nothing could be more accurate when it comes to food and mental fitness. Food choice really does have an impact on how we feel and look. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear people say that when they eat better, they feel better. The food we put in our mouths is the fuel that we run on. And when we opt for premium nutrients, we simply run better.

The same is true for our teens. Yet, too many of our young people run on junk food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of our nation’s youth eat fast food daily.

Research indicates that fuel choice may be hurting their bodies and mental health. In one study published in Physiological Reports, researchers followed 84 middle school students. They monitored sodium and potassium excretion and depressive symptoms for a year and a half. The findings suggested that for adolescents, consuming foods that are high in sodium, a mineral frequently found at high levels in junk food, and those that are low in potassium was related to an increase in depressive symptoms. The researchers concluded that poor diet was, in fact, a risk factor for depression.

What we eat impacts how we think, feel and act. That’s why it’s essential to help your teen establish healthy eating habits. Many teens gravitate toward junk food because it’s convenient and fits into their busy lifestyles, but that doesn’t have to be the case. It’s just as easy to opt for an apple as it is for a bag of chips. There is just no way around it – a healthy body helps support a healthy mind.

Sleeping More

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that children ages 14 to 18 sleep eight to 10 hours a night, but the vast majority of youth aren’t even coming close to that recommendation. On average, most teens get about 7.5 hours of sleep a night. It comes as no surprise that sleep deprivation takes a toll on their mood.

As reported by the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that when teens experience sleep loss, even for short periods, it increased their risk for mood disorders. In this particular study, 35 participants, aged 11 1/2 to 15 years, were monitored in a sleep lab for two nights, with half of them sleeping for 10 hours and the remaining sleeping for four hours.

A week later, they returned to the lab and switched sleep schedules from their initial visit. During their time at the lab, they underwent brain scans monitoring the reward center of their brain while playing a game and also completed emotional functioning and depressive symptoms assessments. The data indicated that sleep deprivation affected the putamen, an area of the brain that is responsible for goal-based movements and learning from rewards.

Consequently, there was a link between sleep deprivation and their reported depressive symptoms, too. Participants who did not get enough sleep reported feeling more depressed than their well-rested peers.

Overall, the results suggested that inadequate sleep during adolescence may affect how the brain processes reward and increase the likelihood of depression and risk-taking behavior. When teens were sleep-deprived, they didn’t make the best choices. According to this study, sleep not only helps kids feel better, it also helps them make better choices.

Make sure that your teen is getting enough sleep by limiting screen time before bed and establishing a good bedtime routine, particularly on school nights when they are more apt to sleep less. It’s also important for kids to keep their phones away from their beds at night. Just a few simple tweaks in their bedtime routine can make all the difference, because a well-rested teen is a happier and healthier teen.

Exercising More

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that teens get at least an hour of moderate or vigorous physical activity each day. Still, according to a study in Preventive Medicine, young people are getting about as much exercise as a 60-year-old.

In Latin, there’s a saying: “mens sana in corpore sano.” When translated, it means: “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” And researchers have shown that a healthy body does indeed contribute to a healthy mind, especially when it comes to anxiety and depression.

A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that exercise could reduce the risk of developing depression. In this study, researchers monitored the physical activity of 266,939 participants from around the world for more than seven years. Their findings showed that when people were more active, their risk of developing depression decreased regardless of how old they were and where they lived.

These findings support a large body of literature that has linked physical activity with improved mood. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that exercise is as effective in treating depression as antidepressants. Now, that’s something to consider.

Establishing healthy habits begins early. It’s important to get our kids moving because an hour a day can go a long way toward promoting physical and mental well-being.

All things considered, it’s incredible how some of life’s most basic tasks, such as eating well, getting a good night’s sleep and exercising, can positively impact our children’s well-being. There’s just no way around it: A healthy body and a healthy mind really begin with the basics of self-care.

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