Is lifestyle change the key to men’s mental health?
A new study revealing the limited number of men involved in randomised trials of behaviour change interventions for depression, is a timely reminder of the untapped potential of lifestyle programs to improve men’s mental health.
Researchers at the University of Newcastle (Australia) have confirmed that depression is associated with several lifestyle behaviours such as physical inactivity, poor diet, disturbed sleep and increased alcohol consumption. Multiple reviews have indicated that physical activity is an effective strategy for treating depression and the evidence for interventions based on improving diet and sleep is also growing.
The academics noted that observational evidence suggests men more frequently present with disruptions in these health behaviours rather than the cognitive or emotional symptoms of depression. Observational data also indicates that physical activity and healthy eating are two of the top five strategies that Australian men with depression use to manage their mental health.
As it is often these health behaviours that act as a prompt for men to seek help, research suggests that lifestyle interventions could be a promising approach for treating depression in men.
Despite this, a recent review of lifestyle programs found no studies with substantive mental health support for men with pre-existing mental health conditions and adequate power to detect changes in mental health outcomes, indicating a current lack of programs specifically targeting men’s mental health through lifestyle change.
Similarly, a review of male-only lifestyle behaviour change interventions retrieved no studies that: (i) targeted pre-existing mental health conditions, or (ii) were powered to detect changes in mental health outcomes, or included substantive mental health support.
Previous targeted efforts to recruit men in male-only lifestyle programs have demonstrated some success, say the researchers. For example, the SHED-IT Recharge program recruited men overweight or with obesity and depressive symptoms through gender-tailored advertising (e.g., “lose weight without giving up beer”). Similar male-specific recruitment methods, such as using sports language (e.g., ‘mental fitness’ rather than 'mental illness') have been shown to be useful in the mental health context.
The study concludes that research is needed to properly investigate the question of whether men prefer a lifestyle approach or mental health approach for managing depression, with a range of male-only programs developed and tested.
Male involvement in randomised trials testing psychotherapy or behavioural interventions for depression: a scoping review