Last Upated October 13, 2023 (originally published August 2017)
Everyone knows that exercise improves physical health. You’ve likely heard of its metabolism-boosting, blood sugar–lowering and cardioprotective benefits. Less commonly discussed are exercise’s powerful depression- and anxiety-reducing effects.
Follow these six guidelines to improve your mental and emotional health through exercise.
Moving your routine outdoors in natural spaces—which is called green exercise—may provide a boost in mental well-being. There is emerging evidence that suggests that green exercise may provide additional health benefits when compared to exercising indoors and/or outdoor built environments. As little as five minutes of exercise in green spaces (for example, in view of ample grass and trees) can improve self-esteem and mood. Further, outdoor exercise may lower tension and anger, and—if performed with exposure to sunlight—allow for the absorption of vitamin D, which is another important factor for managing depressive symptoms.
Find a Community
Exercising with friends is a mental health one-two punch. It allows for the positive benefits of exercise and helps us connect with others. It also creates opportunities for social support, which is vital to good mental health.
Talk, but not Sing
Exercise doesn’t have to be long and strenuous to produce mental health benefits. In fact, moderate-intensity exercise may be most beneficial in reducing symptoms of depression. To ensure you’re exercising at a moderate intensity, use the talk test. If you can talk in short sentences, but can’t sing a song, you’re likely at the right intensity.
Move More and Sit Less
Most benefits from physical activity occur when increasing from no activity to at least some. In fact, substantial mental health benefits can be achieved when performing physical activity levels below the current public health recommendations. To be clear, any increase in physical-activity levels may improve mental health.
To learn more about the role of exercise in mental health, check out this video from Sami Mansfield, founder of Cancer Wellness for Life.
Avoid Situations That Leave You Feeling “Less Than”
The world of health and fitness can be hypercompetitive and unrealistic. Instagram trainers sport washboard abs and perfect hair, and gyms and studios can have appearance-based social norms that heighten feelings of insecurity. For some, these social-media outlets and fitness settings inspire hard work and dedication. For others, they lead to negative comparisons, self-doubt and shame. If your online or in-person fitness environment doesn’t leave you feeling positive and uplifted, it may be time to selectively unfollow or choose a new workout locale. There are plenty of body-positive, health-focused, inclusive individuals and organizations that you can follow and support instead.
Thank Your Body for the Gift of Movement
An attitude of gratitude may improve mental health , and this extends to your exercise practice as well. When you finish a bout of physical activity, take a few minutes to reflect on and appreciate your body’s ability to move. Thank your body for the workout it carried you through and consider your good fortune in being able to express your humanity through movement.
If you struggle with symptoms of anxiety or depression, incorporate daily movement into your life, focusing on inclusive environments, outdoor workouts and moderate intensity. You may find that your exercise sessions do as much for your mental well-being as they do for your physical health.
If you are interested in learning more about how nutrition, physical activity, sleep, breathing and social connections impact mental health, check out this continuing education course from ACE: A Holistic Approach to Mental Health (worth 0.5 ACE CECs).