Two women smiling while doing exercise

Fruit, vegetables and exercise really do make you feel better, according to science

Posted by for Nutrition

Eating well and moving more doesn’t not sound like shocking advice, but a new study proves exactly why they’re so important. 

It’s hardly groundbreaking news that getting out of breath for 150 minutes and eating 30 plants a week is good for you. But new research shows that doing both doesn’t just improve your physical health – helping you avoid cardiovascular disease, muscle atrophy and mobility issues – but it also supports your short-term happiness.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Kent and University of Reading, found that improving your lifestyle can lead to life satisfaction. And it really is news: this is the first study of its kind to show cause and effect between health behaviours and happiness, as opposed to just general correlation. 

In particular, the study showed that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and regularly moving makes people happy, rather than the other way around – that happier people may be more likely to choose health promoting behaviours. The reason all comes down to people’s ability to delay gratification.

“The consumption of fruits and vegetables and sports activity are often undertaken as investments in a healthier future rather than because they bring immediate pleasure,” researchers write. When we purposely decide to push back our gratification, by reaching for vegetables or scheduling in a run, we can change the neural pathways in our brain. Specifically, we dull the limbic system (associated with survival and our ‘fight or flight’ mode). “The ability to delay gratification is strongly correlated with brain function… [therefore] healthy behaviours have a significant impact on the life-satisfaction,” say the paper’s authors. 

An overhead shot of salad bowls
Eating fruit and veg is seen as delayed gratification, which can change your brain function.

If you’re someone who struggles with maintaining an active routine or choosing plant-based meals, you’re not alone. “Given the amount of information provided by health professionals regarding the impact of lifestyle on health, it is clearly not a lack of information that mitigates against healthy lifestyles,” researchers acknowledge. “The fact that New Year’s resolutions often involve such activities is testament to this awareness. However, that in the vast majority of cases, New Year’s resolutions are broken is also testament to the fact that there are other factors at play here. Chief amongst these is the ability to delay gratification.” 

We find delaying gratification so hard – despite knowing it’s good for us – because it seems that our personalities are divided into ‘the planner’, who sets goals, and ‘the doer’, who focuses on short term gains. “This division seems to be closely related to the human brain function, something long recognised by neuroscientists,” the paper states. The way to improve your ability to choose fruits and veg, and therefore improve your happiness, is to help the planner win.

They don’t offer solutions for what kind of behaviours can help the planner out, but simple things like meal prepping or paying in advance for classes make adding these things into our lifestyle a little easier. Of course, there are a myriad of reasons why eating more fruit and vegetables and doing regular exercise are good for your physical and mental health – this is just one of them. But if these small changes can “not only benefit [your] physical health in the long-run, but also [your] mental well-being in the short-run,” as the authors state, they’re a pretty good place to start. 

Images: Getty / Pexels 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).