Exercise and mental health

It isn’t often we find a no cost (and fun!) treatment for medical conditions — but there are many easy and affordable mood-boosting activities that are proven to help support mental health.1(Things like meditation, journaling, social interaction or listening to music, for example.) However, exercise may be among the top picks for mood-boosting activities, offering many positive benefits. Not only is moving your body incredibly important for your physical well-being, it’s also something many of us need to help support a healthy mind. Let’s take a look at how the benefits of exercise include more than what we may see on the scale.

What are the benefits of exercise on mental health?

Many of us may know that exercise is good for our health — but what contributes to these side benefits? For one, exercising increases blood circulation to the brain, which helps support the areas that control motivation, mood, stress and more.2 Plus, physical activity helps increase your brain’s production of feel-good transmitters (chemicals), called endorphins.3  These powerhouse chemicals increase feelings of pleasure and well-being. All of this happens behind the scenes during and after a workout to help support a healthy mind. The result? Well, that exercise can bring on a lot of positive things, like:4

  • Better sleep
  • Less stress
  • Improved mood
  • Increased energy
  • Reduced tiredness — and that can help increase mental alertness

What exercises can I do to improve my mental health?

It’s almost impossible to go through life without feeling blue every now and then. After all, we live with stressors every single day. If you’re looking to improve your mental health, getting up and moving around may be one of the best medicines. And here’s a hint — there are no right or wrong exercises to help with anxiety, depression or stress. The key to an effective activity is finding one you like to do. Then, your body’s biological reaction to exercise takes care of the rest. (It makes sense — if getting up and moving is fun, you'll be more motivated to do it.) Here’s a list of exercises you may want to try:

  • Running, walking or hiking
  • Boxing
  • Pilates
  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Spin class
  • Weight lifting

Talk with your doctor before significantly increasing your activity level. Ask about the amounts and types of activities that may be best for you.

Bonus points: Did you know spending time in nature comes with mental health benefits?5 Taking your workout moves outside can help improve your mood and emotional well-being. Here’s another tip: group fitness classes can be a good way to form social connections and foster positive relationships to further support your mental health. Grab a friend, get moving, and get those endorphins pumping.

How can I find motivation and stay on track with exercise?

Sometimes getting into a workout routine is easier said than done. Luckily, there are so many resources to help you get excited about exercise and stay on track — it’s all about finding what works. Your health plan may even offer a rewards program that offers incentives and fitness tracking tools to help you set and reach your exercise goals.

Another option is to partner up with a workout buddy. Having someone you can rely on (and who can rely on you) is an effective strategy to create healthy habits. That accountability factor is a game changer (and planks and push-ups may be a lot more fun with a friend).

Footnotes

  1. Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms mayoclinic.org, 2016. 
  2. Working out boosts brain health apa.org, 2020.
  3. Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress mayoclinic.org, 2020. 
  4. How Can Exercise Affect Sleep? | The Sleep Foundatation sleepfoundation.org, 2021.
  5. Nutured by nature apa.org, 2020.