woman jumping rope outside

How Exercise Can Support Your Mental Well-Being

By Sara Lindberg
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
January 08, 2024

It’s well known that physical activity is linked to physical health. But there are also many benefits of exercise on mental health and mood.

In addition to reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, chronic pain, and weak bones, regular physical activity can also increase energy levels, improve sleep, and even leave you in better control of your emotions and mental health, says Haley Perlus, Ph.D., a sports psychologist and performance coach in Boulder, Colorado.

Fortunately, you can achieve most of these benefits with a relatively minimal time commitment—and even better, they can be fun and fulfilling. Here’s how to make exercise work for you.

The Body-Mind Connection

Regular exercise can help you feel better in your body, says Jaime Coffino, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and the director of the Coffino Center for Eating, Anxiety, and Mood Disorders, in New York City.

When people exercise for emotional well‑being, it can also help improve their self-esteem and body image. “Exercise can allow you to feel more connected to your body and increase awareness of your body’s functionality,” Coffino says, adding that it can increase self-confidence by giving you the opportunity to practice setting and attaining goals.

The Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health

Specifically, exercise may help:

  • Improve mood. Exercise helps your body release endorphins, which many people call “feel-good chemicals” since they can help boost mood. They even help block pain, says Judy Rosenberg, Ph.D., psychologist and clinical director of the Psychological Healing Center in Sherman Oaks, California. “Endorphins are shown to lessen feelings of depression and boost emotions of euphoria after a workout,” she says.

    Taking your workout outdoors may have additional benefits. Findings from a 2019 study suggest that exercising outside for at least 120 minutes each week might also boost happiness and well‑being.

  • Reduce stress. Rosenberg says exercise's potential to decrease mental and physical stress has been extensively researched, with encouraging findings. “Going to the gym or working out with home exercise equipment can lead to a significant release of hormones that assist the brain in coping with stress,” she says.

    Rosenberg adds that putting your muscles through the physical stress of exercise also increases resilience. “Exposing the body to physical stress regularly teaches the body how to recover and adapt to stress both physically and mentally,” she explains.

  • Boost brain function. Perlus says that exercise can leave you with improved cognitive function, allowing you to quickly switch from task to task and be more focused. According to the American Psychological Association, physical activity can benefit white and gray matter in the brain, leading to better thinking, attention span, perception, and memory.

6 Types of Exercise for Well-Being

Any type of physical activity can be more beneficial to your mood than staying stuck in your chair. “Simply making sure you get up and get moving throughout the day, even if for only 15 to 20 minutes, can boost your mood,” Perlus says.

These exercises can help keep you moving.

1. Stretching

You’ve likely heard that some people carry tension in their hips, neck, or back. That’s because when we’re stressed, we tend to tighten up and hold that contraction for an extended period of time, which can lead to pain or discomfort. Stretching can help release some of this tension. It also encourages deep breathing, which can decrease stress and anxiety levels, studies suggest.

Try to do a few simple stretches, like reaching your arms overhead or down to touch your toes, for five to 10 minutes each day.

2. Yoga or Pilates

Perlus says any exercise that combines physical postures and breathing exercises can connect the mind and body. This combo, characteristic of yoga or Pilates routines, can help decrease stress and promote relaxation.

3. Aerobic Exercise

Another highly recommended form of exercise for well‑being, Perlus says, is aerobic exercise. Endurance activities help get the heart pumping, increase oxygen intake, and boost endorphin production.

Try incorporating these aerobic activities into your workout plan:

  • Taking a brisk walk
  • Running
  • Cycling
  • Dancing

4. Balance Exercises

Improving your balance can help with stability as you move and prevent falls. Rosenberg points out that this is especially important as we get older because the bodily functions that factor into balance—sight, the inner ear, and the muscles and joints in our lower body—can falter with age.

Fortunately, balance exercises can help you stave off and even correct these problems, leading to a boost in confidence, self-esteem, and overall well‑being, she adds.

Here are some balance exercises to try:

  • Stand on one foot for 10 to 20 seconds. Do this three times on each foot. Use a wall, a table, or the back of a chair for support if needed.
  • Walk in a straight line, heel to toe, for 20 steps. Keep your arms out to the side or stand next to a wall and use the wall for support.
  • Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Stand up, pause for a few seconds, and then sit back down again. Do this 10 to 20 times.

5. Strength Training

Resistance training (which includes weightlifting and body weight exercises) may play a role in managing low moods, according to a 2018 meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials, which included 1,877 participants. Researchers believe that resistance exercise is associated with a reduction in depressive symptoms, especially when performed at least two or more days a week. The study also noted that working out in this way tended to result in a boost in mood.

6. Your Favorite Physical Activities

Simply moving your body can help decrease sadness and boost your mood, Perlus says. So, don’t discount activities you enjoy as ways to stay active. That may include:

  • Gardening
  • Yardwork
  • Playing tennis
  • Golfing
  • Playing basketball
  • Walking your dog

How to Start Exercising for Mental Health

Need more of a nudge to get off the couch? Use these tips for incorporating exercise into your lifestyle.

  • Make it social. If exercising is not your thing, consider making a fitness date with a friend or joining a group class. Teaming up with a workout partner not only gives you something to look forward to but also can help with accountability and motivation. Try to commit to three days a week, and give each other reminder calls and texts (and high-fives!) as needed.
  • Move throughout the day. On days when you can’t fit in a workout, incorporate movement breaks into your schedule. For example: Do 10 minutes of yoga in the morning, take a 10-minute walk at lunch, and squeeze in 10 minutes of core moves and pushups before bed. You’ll still reap the mind-body benefits of these moves even if you don’t do them all together in a 30-minute workout.
  • Aim for the recommended guidelines. The current physical activity guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that most people age 18 and older engage in moderate exercise ranging from 2.5 to 5 hours a week, or participate in vigorous aerobic exercise for between 1.25 and 2.5 hours a week. Additionally, the HHS recommends muscle-strengthening activities involving all major muscle groups, on at least two days out of every seven.

This may sound like a lot, but remember, you can break it up into small segments. Also keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you need to move into the gym, or even buy a membership: You can find ways to meet these guidelines doing those activities you already enjoy.

Exercise Good Judgment

Remember: Even though moderate physical activity is typically safe for most people, it's a good idea to check with your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen, especially if you have any health conditions or concerns. Your doctor can help you figure out what kind of exercise routine is right for you.

In addition to regularly exercising—for mental health and emotional well‑being, as well as your physical health—it’s also important that you listen to your body and not push yourself too hard. “Choose an activity that will make you feel good,” Coffino says.

See you outside, on the court, in the gym, or on the road!

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