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6 Exercises and How They Benefit Your Body and Mind

By Erica Patino
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
May 10, 2024

It’s long been established that exercise is good for your body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regular physical activity can help you manage your weight, reduce your risk of chronic diseases, and make it easier to do your everyday activities. And running for just 15 minutes a day—or walking for one hour a day—may reduce the risk of major depression, according to a 2019 study in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Exercise also gives your mind a major boost because it lowers your levels of cortisol and epinephrine, which are stress hormones. Although it's been commonly thought that exercising causes an increase of endorphins, research suggests it may actually boost a different type of brain chemical called norepinephrine, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). This helps your brain handle stress more efficiently. In addition, the APA says exercise can actually improve your memory, cognition, and other brain functions.

Whether you’re looking to start exercising or just change up your existing routine, remember that any form of physical activity is beneficial, as long as you do it safely. “Exercise is medicine, so find some activities that you enjoy and can do regularly,” says Tracy Zaslow, M.D., a primary care sports medicine doctor at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles and a team physician for Angel City Football Club and the LA Galaxy.

Types of Exercise You Should Be Getting

Different types of exercise challenge your body in different ways. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, and there are other types of exercise you'll want to add to your weekly routine for maximum benefits.

“The primary categories of exercise include aerobic exercise, strength training, balance, and flexibility/stretching,” says Miho Tanaka, M.D., director of the women's sports medicine program at Massachusetts General Hospital, team physician for the Boston Red Sox and Boston Ballet, and associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School, in Cambridge.

  • Aerobic exercise, such as running, walking, biking, and hiking, increase your heart rate and strengthen your cardiovascular system.
  • Strength training exercise, as the name implies, improves your strength and endurance, either using equipment or your own body weight. Examples include lifting weights and doing yoga, Zaslow says.
  • Balance exercises, such as standing on one leg, work your legs, lower back, and core muscles to improve your balance.
  • Flexibility exercises and stretching can help reduce your risk of injury while doing other activities. Examples include lunges, reaching down to touch your toes, or yoga poses.

6 Physical Activities to Try

Any exercise can be beneficial to physical and mental well‑being—and most provide a combination of benefits. Here’s how to get started with, and make the most of, a few popular ones:

1. Running

“Running provides both aerobic exercise and strengthening,” Tanaka says. “It can be a great all-in-one workout that requires no gym or home equipment.” You can also run indoors on a treadmill if you have access to one.

A recent review of 50 years’ worth of studies found a positive association between regular, moderate running and mental health. Runners were less likely to report depression, psychological disorders, or trouble managing mood.

To get started: Slow and steady is the way to go. Check with a doctor to make sure it’s safe for you to run. You can start by walking and strength training if you haven't been exercising. Then, you can do a run-walk interval program, where you run for three minutes and then walk for one, Zaslow suggests. Once you're comfortable with that, you can run for four minutes and walk for one, then run five minutes and walk for one, and so on, for longer intervals.

If you're already running: Mix in strength and flexibility exercises to avoid overuse injuries. You can also cross-train by swimming, using a stationary bike, or practicing yoga, Zaslow says.

2. Yoga

Research suggests that yoga’s mind-body practice can have a variety of benefits, including reducing stress, lifting mood, and promoting a positive outlook. Because it involves slowing down, focusing on your breath, and being mindful in the moment, yoga can relax the body, lower blood pressure, promote a healthy heart, and reduce feelings of anxiety.

Yoga helps develop balance, flexibility, and strength, which are critical foundations of any exercise program. “It is especially important to actively maintain flexibility and balance in order to allow our muscles and joints to continue supporting the same levels of activity as we age,” Tanaka says.

To get started: Look for a beginners yoga class so you can learn the correct way to perform and hold the poses, suggests Zaslow.

If you’re already practicing yoga: As you keep up your yoga practice, Zaslow suggests that you look for ways to cross-train to build your cardiovascular strength, such as through activities like walking, running, or biking.

3. Biking

Whether it’s riding a stationary bike or cycling outdoors, biking provides an aerobic workout while minimizing impact on the joints, Tanaka says. You can bike solo or go to group fitness classes or on group bike rides.

In one recent study, people reported fewer depressive symptoms after cycling. And in another study, older adults who cycled indoors or outdoors at least an hour and a half per week for eight weeks scored better on several cognitive tests.

To get started: Begin with shorter rides. If you’re on a stationary bike, try an easier level and increase it as you build strength. If you’re heading outdoors, wear a helmet, follow traffic laws, and start on flatter ground.

If you’re already biking: You can increase the speed or intensity of your rides, but also incorporate stretching and strengthening to increase core strength and stretch your legs, such as by practicing yoga, Zaslow says.

4. Swimming

Swimming is a great cardiovascular exercise that's also low impact, making it a good choice if you have joint pain or problems with your knees, hips, or back. It's also a good option during pregnancy, since it reduces the weight you're carrying while getting fit.

According to the CDC, swimming can help boost mood and decrease feelings of anxiety.

To get started: If you don't know how to swim or could use a refresher, look for a local swim class or instructor. Then, you can start swimming laps, taking breaks in between. Group swim fitness classes can be a fun way to get fit as a beginner, too, says Zaslow.

If you're already swimming: You can increase your laps and decrease the number of breaks you take if you want to up the intensity. It's also good to work on your balance and strength on land by running, jumping rope, and doing balance exercises.

5. Strength Training

In studies, strength training has helped people to reduce feelings of anxiety, low mood, and pain intensity. It may also help improve self-esteem, cognition, and sleep.

“Strength training is an important part of building and maintaining muscle mass and strength, which can also help reduce the risk of osteoporosis,” Tanaka says. The focus of strength training doesn't necessarily have to be bulking up your muscles, but strengthening muscles.

To get started: Classes like beginners yoga or Pilates can be a great way to build strength. Or you can lift weights, starting with 2- or 3-pound weights. Another option is doing strength training exercises for about 10 or 20 minutes at the end of an aerobic exercise, or doing them on a day off from other exercises, Zaslow says.

If you’re already strength training: You can incorporate higher weights or more repetitions of what you're doing to build further strength. Keep integrating strength training with your more cardio-based workouts.

6. Hiking

Hiking is another form of aerobic exercise that can give you a mood boost from being out in nature, plus you may enjoy socializing with other hikers. "Spending time on trails and uneven ground can add an element of strengthening, as well," Tanaka says.

To get started: Be prepared so you know what you're getting into before you try a certain trail. You can ask people familiar with local spots for recommendations based on your skill level, or use a hiking app or book to check the mileage of a trail and its elevation. Begin with short mileage and low elevation, and bring more water than you think you'll need, Zaslow suggests. Wear appropriate footwear; you can use a hiking stick to help with balance, too.

If you’re already hiking: You can opt for longer hikes with more elevation to challenge yourself. In addition, cross-train to build your cardiovascular fitness for hiking, such as by using a stair climber machine, elliptical trainer, or stationary bike. Yoga can also be helpful to build your strength and flexibility on longer-duration hikes, Zaslow says.

Whether you’re a seasoned exerciser or new to fitness, challenge yourself gradually. And talk to your doctor before adding anything new to your fitness routine.

“We generally advise people not to increase their activities in terms of volume or intensity by more than 20% per week, in order to allow enough time for the body to adapt,” Tanaka says. “Allowing for appropriate time to warm up and stretch and incorporating time for rest and recovery are often overlooked but important components of an exercise routine.”

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