Exercise is well known for its mood-boosting benefits. But does it really improve mental health in provable ways? We looked at the research and talked to top experts, and found out that working out can indeed have major mental health advantages — long after your runner’s high has faded.
Here’s how exercise can help alleviate long-term depression and anxiety symptoms, and how you can harness its many mental health benefits… even if you’re not exactly feeling motivated. Let’s jump into it!
What Are the Mental Health Advantages of Exercise?
Exercise can support mental health in a multitude of ways, from reducing stress to calming anxiety.
“When exercise is viewed as a tool within a toolbox to aid in one's physical and emotional wellbeing, it really starts falling into place,” explains Jamie Bichelman, clinical psychologist who’s extensively researched exercise motivation and physiology.
Working out can release endorphins (feel-good chemicals), offer social benefits, and contribute to improved mental health outcomes.
“Research has indicated that aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression,” adds Bichelman.
So how exactly does it work? Scientists theorize that exercise increases blood circulation in the brain, influencing the areas that control stress, mood, motivation, and even cognitive function.
In fact, exercise is shown to be more effective than both medication and cognitive behavioral therapy when it comes to treating depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. And it’s completely free, without side effects! Here are some of the biggest ways exercise can support mental health, according to scientific research:
Help alleviate depression and anxiety
Sharpen cognitive function
Increase energy and stamina
Plus, exercise can offer valuable social time for connection and community, especially when you partake in group workouts.
How Much Exercise Do I Need to Support My Mental Health?
The good news is you don’t need a ton of exercise to reap all of those mental health rewards. Around 30 minutes a day, three days per week of moderate- to high-intensity exercise (think: a brisk walk or run/walk) will do the trick.
The best part? You don’t even need to do 30 minutes at one time. The workouts can be broken up into shorter sessions, such as 10 minutes each, to keep things manageable.
Starting a workout routine can be daunting, and mental health issues can make taking the first step a challenge. But it’s okay — and even encouraged — to start small.
“The distance one should walk for a quality workout is, quite literally, the distance that gets them out the door,” says Bichelman.
He learned this lesson firsthand while managing his own mental health struggles.
“When I was in a deep, years-long depression that led to significant weight gain and little motivation or energy, the idea of needing to run several miles to lose weight was far too daunting of a task. This led to a vicious cycle of shame and guilt and more inactivity,” he admits.
By starting small with more manageable workouts, he was able to build back slowly to doing more activities he loved.
How to Start Exercising for Mental Health (Even With Zero Motivation!)
Top NASM-certified personal trainer and behavior change specialist Ben Golden, who coaches clients with Kickoff, agrees that starting small is the key to success.
“I’ve had several clients struggle with motivation gaps, and we focus on these key areas: Workouts should be simple, short, and frequent. Build up momentum and small wins,” says Golden.
Here are a few other tips you can use to get started, even when motivation is a distant memory:
Grant yourself time to appreciate daily wins and celebrate the small victories.
Start with slow movement, like walking, and build from there.
Focus on weight training with dumbbells and other simple equipment. Bodyweight workouts build strength, too.
Try micro-workouts that are just a few minutes, focusing on one move at a time.
Exercise with friends for more social interaction and accountability.
Start early in the day, when mental motivation is stronger.
Work with a personal trainer who can provide guidance and motivation.
Find exercise you love to do.
The workout you love is the workout you’ll stick with. And sometimes, loving one type of workout can even help you fall in love with another.
Golden sees this play out all the time in his work as a personal trainer. One client, a woman in her 50s, found that she loved competing in ballroom dance, which helped motivate her to try more strength training.
“Recently, we’ve started to incorporate slow dumbbell strength training into the routine. She’s improved overall strength, lower body muscular endurance, and core stability. This has really helped ballroom dancing skills, mental motivation, and focus in preparation for upcoming competitions,” shares Golden.
When all else fails, Bichelman suggests it may be best to visit your doctor to see if physical therapy might be an option.
“Having an actual clinical professional assessing one's physical wellness and abilities, then creating a plan that’s considerate of their mental health is life-changing,” reveals Bichelman.
“Then, when those healthy habits are developed and nurtured in a clinical setting, finding a properly-educated professional trainer, as well as a group of friends or coworkers, can really help transfer those healthy habits from the clinical setting into the gym, the park, and anywhere else your fitness takes you!”
Best Exercises for Mental Health
The best exercise for mental health is the exercise you can do, and that you’ll stick with. But there are also a few mental health-supporting workouts to consider, too.
Fitness therapy combines working out with psychotherapy. By getting professional mental health support alongside workouts, you can develop new behavioral patterns and incorporate more healthful habits into your routine.
Fitness therapy can be done in a one-on-one or group setting, and may be a good fit for those who haven’t been able to make changes on their own.
Or perhaps you might enjoy yoga therapy, which uses postures, breathing techniques, and mindfulness to improve mental and physical health. This type of exercise may also include elements of psychotherapy and physical therapy.
Yoga therapy offers a holistic approach to healing, bringing together mind, body, and spirit. And according to its advocates, it’s quite effective, too. Yoga therapy is now being proven as an effective treatment for anxiety and depression — and it shows promise for both post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.
Similar to fitness therapy, running therapy combines running with psychotherapy. Proponents of this therapy say it allows participants to gain introspection through movement. There’s evidence that it may work, too. In one study, running therapy was shown to be as effective as antidepressants for mental health.
If you’re already into running, this type of treatment may well be worth a shot!
Try This Mood-Boosting Workout
Not sure you’re up for exercise therapy? That’s fine! It’s not for everyone, and it’s certainly not necessary to see results.
If you’re looking for something more traditional, Golden offered up his go-to workout for improving mental health. It’s around 40 minutes long, and packs a big mood-boosting punch.
Here’s how to do it:
Go for a 22-minute walk, preferably outside.
Complete a 5-minute bodyweight circuit (8 reps of push-ups, squats, lunges, leg raises, plank with rotation).
Complete a 3-minute dumbbell circuit (10 reps of chest press, bent over rows, and sumo squats).
Complete a 4-minute plyometric bodyweight burner (15 reps of squat jumps, high knees, mountain climbers).
Run 2 x 400-meter sprints.
Plenty of research shows that exercise can have major benefits for your mental health. Whether you’re looking to ease stress, improve sleep, boost your mood, or lessen anxiety, exercise is a powerful ally to keep in your mental health toolkit.
In many cases, exercise can be just as powerful at treating depression and anxiety as medication and psychotherapy. And all it takes is just 90 minutes, split up across a week. So start small, keep going, and pat yourself on the back for every single baby step. You’ve got this!
And if you happen to need extra support and accountability to help you stick to an exercise plan, sign up for a free consultation with a certified personal trainer today.