Exercise doesn’t just benefit your body. It benefits your mind.
A vast body of literature supports the benefits of exercise for mental health. Every time you get moving, your mood takes note.[*]
Beyond everyday mood-boosting, exercise may also help with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and many other mental conditions. It’s like a blockbuster pharmaceutical without the side effects or wallet-ectomy.
So, what’s driving these benefits? What’s the best exercise for mental health? And how should you start a mentally-focused exercise routine?
Read on to find out.
The Many Benefits of Exercise
If they could make an exercise pill, everyone would take it. Why? Because it would make you stronger and happier while lowering your risk for every chronic disease.[*]
That’s what regular exercise does for you. It’s the ultimate way to show your body love.
Exercise is right up there with sleep for health and longevity. But unlike sleep, you don’t need 7-9 hours per day to benefit!
According to the US Physical Activity Guidelines, you only need about 20 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per day (150 minutes per week) plus two strength training sessions to capture “substantial health benefits.”[*]
That’s a reasonable target for mental health benefits too.
Benefits of Exercise for Mental Health
If you’re a regular exerciser, you know how you feel after a workout. The mood lift is tangible.
The research confirms this feeling. Regular exercise reduces negative thoughts and even helps with clinical depression.[*][*]
Then there’s stress relief. Exercise, it’s been shown, buffers cortisol (the stress hormone) and improves stress resiliency.[*]
But you don’t need scientific data to buy this argument. Next time you have a stressful day—when an appliance breaks, when you miss an appointment, when your boss demands you sing the National Anthem on a video call—go work out, then notice the difference for yourself.
Beyond stress relief, exercise has also been shown to:
- Enhance memory and learning[*]
- Improve sleep quality[*]
- Boost body image and self-esteem[*]
What’s driving these benefits?
Why Is Exercise Good for Mental Health?
You don’t need to know why exercise works to benefit your mind. But if you’re curious, this section is for you.
The human brain is the most elaborate structure in the Universe, so there are no simple answers here. But if we had to make a bumper sticker, it might say:
- More blood to my brain keeps me sane
- Endorphin junkie
- Neuroplasticity baby!
First, more blood (and oxygen) reaches the brain when you exercise. This increase in cerebral blood flow, research suggests, improves brain function and staves off cognitive decline.[*][*]
Exercise also stimulates the release of endorphins, endocannabinoids, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters. These feel-good chemicals drive that post-workout “high.”
Finally, exercise increases neuroplasticity. Along with learning, sleep, and meditation, exercise helps your nervous system rewire (and improve) itself.
Mental Conditions Improved By Exercise
Exercise helps with a wide range of mental disorders. Here’s a partial list:
- Depression. Aerobic exercise may be especially beneficial, according to a 2018 review.[*]
- Anxiety. High-intensity aerobic efforts appear to reduce anxiety more than low-intensity efforts, but both have an effect.[*]
- ADHD. Exercise regulates brain dopamine levels, reducing impulsivity.[*]
- Schizophrenia. Exercise may offset the weight gain side effect of antipsychotics.[*]
- Bipolar disorder. Regular activity has the potential to stabilize the mood swings that define this condition.[*]
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.) One study found that 12 weeks of regular aerobic exercise reduced OCD symptoms.[*]
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) Remember how exercise can reduce stress and enhance neuroplasticity? These are valuable benefits for PTSD.[*]
Standard disclaimer alert: talk to your healthcare provider about how exercise fits in with your (or your loved one’s) treatment plan.
The Best Exercise for Mental Health
The best exercise for mental health is the exercise you can do every day. Don’t overcomplicate it.
Pick something you enjoy and work it into your schedule. After a few weeks, the behavior will become habitual, and you can save your willpower for other things—like persuading your cat to fetch the newspaper. (Good luck!)
You’ll want to incorporate aerobic activities—hiking, cycling, swimming, jogging, sports, etc.—for the research-backed benefits.[*] Even brisk-walking counts.
And don’t neglect strength, mobility, and stability training, especially if you want to stay functional into your later years.
Look for activities (like yoga) that combine multiple forms of movement into one session. Community-based exercise also has social benefits that make life more enjoyable.
How To Start an Exercise Routine
Feeling stuck and unsure where to start? These tips should help get you moving.
#1: Start small
Again, don’t be overly ambitious. Start with a short bike ride, a 10-minute online yoga class, or a stroll around the block.
The important thing is to do something.
#2: Make it fun
Many people associate exercise with the gym (think: running in place next to a sweaty man who forgot to wear deodorant), and they stay home instead.
What would be more fun for you? Hiking? Pickleball? Jazz-exercising? Find out and build your routine around it.
#3: Track your efforts
Documenting your behaviors provides instant accountability. In one study, people who documented their exercise plan were 2-3 times more likely to exercise than controls.[*]
Harness this effect by planning your exercise in the Carb Manager app. Motivation, here you come.
Beyond Exercise for Mental Health
Exercise is crucial for mental health, but it’s just one puzzle piece. Other pieces include:
- Getting plenty of quality sleep
- Maintaining important relationships
- Participating in your community
- Eating well and refraining from high sugar intakes
- Managing stress and avoiding overwork
- Not being glued to a smartphone 24/7
- Smiling and laughing more (even if you force it)
You won’t be perfect in all these areas, but you can improve each incrementally.
And if you’re searching for a place to start, start with exercise.