Eating Fruits and Vegetables, Plus Exercise Could Boost Happiness, Study Says

Man running

Key Takeaways

  • Higher consumption of healthy foods, along with more activity, has significant effects on mood, a recent study suggests.
  • The reason for the boost in mood could be delayed gratification, which allows people to stick to healthy changes.
  • Other studies have highlighted how exercise, in particular, can have a considerable impact on reducing depression and anxiety.

According to previous research, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower inflammation and related depression symptoms. Exercise can increase the release of feel-good hormones like serotonin. But those aren’t the only mechanisms at play when it comes to improving your mood, according to a recent study in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Researchers found that eating healthy foods along with exercising regularly gave people a boost in happiness and life satisfaction. Some of this boost in mood may be directly related to delayed gratification.

“We see that the causation goes in the other direction, from lifestyle to happiness,” says lead researcher Adelina Gschwandtner, PhD, senior lecturer in economics at the University of Kent. “Hence, it is really the fruits, veggies, and exercise that make you happier. So, it pays to make the effort to have a healthy lifestyle because, in the end, you’ll be happier as a result.”

About the Study

Researchers looked at data from about 40,000 households in the UK that were part of a large-scale, long-term study called Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study. This study collects information about people’s social and economic circumstances, attitudes, lifestyle habits, health changes, family relationships, and employment.

Focusing on diet and activity, researchers found a strong association between these lifestyle factors and better mood. Although one possibility for this might be that happy people tend to take better care of themselves, the data suggest it is the other way around, says lead researcher Adelina Gschwandtner.

Long-Term View

Although healthy dietary choices and consistent exercise provide ample benefits in terms of physical function, the suggested mechanism in the recent study is actually psychological, says Gschwandtner. It is all about delayed gratification.

Adelina Gschwandtner, PhD

Being able to delay gratification helps you have a better lifestyle, and this better lifestyle makes you happier.

— Adelina Gschwandtner, PhD

Those who undertake these types of behaviors are successful in maintaining them if they have a long-term perspective rather than one that’s reliant on short-term benefits. That kind of emotional investment seems to pay off over the long run.

“Being able to delay gratification helps you have a better lifestyle, and this better lifestyle makes you happier,” she says.

Gschwandtner adds that there was some variation in terms of results between men and women. The latter tended to eat more fruits and vegetables, while the former did more exercise. But those differences were not enough to skew happiness levels toward one gender over the other.

“This benefits everyone and can reduce the burden of ill health that comes from lifestyle diseases,” she says.

Prevention Strategy

The recent study adds to ample evidence that healthy eating and physical activity can not only help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety but may also prevent them in the first place.

Barreto Schuch, PhD

Having the perspective of seeing activity as a source of joy may help many people take steps toward including it in their lives.

— Barreto Schuch, PhD

For example, a research review in Current Sports Medicine Reports looked at 49 studies encompassing nearly 267,000 participants and found people who maintained an exercise routine showed decreased onset of depression, and these results were consistent across numerous countries, as well as among people of all ages, from children to seniors.

This study, and others like it, suggest physical activity can be a useful strategy not just for treating depression, but also for reducing prevalence in the first place, according to study co-author Felipe Barreto Schuch, PhD, in the department of sports techniques at the Universidade Federal de Santa Maria in Brazil.

“Unfortunately, thinking of exercise as a prevention or treatment option isn’t considered a high priority in many cultures,” he says. “That may be because there is still the perception of this as a chore, which can cause resistance and low motivation. Having the perspective of seeing activity as a source of joy may help many people take steps toward including it in their lives.”

Physical Pivot

In addition to psychological shifts like embracing delayed gratification and long-term happiness, it is well established that exercise can create physical changes that support those mood effects. For instance, Schuch says depression is often associated with loss of neurons in the brain, and exercise may help prevent this.

Consumption of fruits and vegetables also gives a significant boost to the body and brain. A study in Social Science & Medicine titled “Lettuce Be Happy” found that eating just one extra portion of these foods per day could provide as much of a mental well-being shift as walking an extra 7-8 days a month.

What This Means For You

Eating more fruits and vegetables, and exercising regularly, could provide a considerable boost to happiness thanks to psychological and physiological shifts. Look for ways to incorporate both into your daily routine in order to reap the benefits in your life. And be sure to speak with a healthcare provider before beginning a new exercise routine.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Swann OG, Kilpatrick M, Breslin M, Oddy WH. Dietary fiber and its associations with depression and inflammation. Nutr Rev. 2020;78(5):394-411. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuz072

  2. Zimmer P, Stritt C, Bloch W, et al. The effects of different aerobic exercise intensities on serum serotonin concentrations and their association with Stroop task performance: a randomized controlled trial. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016;116:2025-2034. doi:10.1007/s00421-016-3456-1

  3. Gschwandtner A, Jewell S, Kambhampati US. Lifestyle and life satisfaction: The role of delayed gratificationJ Happiness Stud. 2021. doi:10.1007/s10902-021-00440-y

  4. Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study. About the study. 2021.

  5. Schuch FB, Stubbs B. The role of exercise in preventing and treating depressionCurr Sports Med Rep. 2019;18(8):299-304. doi:10.1249/JSR.0000000000000620

  6. Ocean N, Howley P, Ensor J. Lettuce be happy: A longitudinal UK study on the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and well-beingSoc Sci Med. 2019;222:335-345. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2018.12.017

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.