The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
The exercise prescription for depression, anxiety, stress, and more
Think a single type of exercise will take care of all your needs? These tips can help you build a comprehensive fitness plan to improve your health and waistline.
For many of us, even when we understand how much regular exercise can improve our mental and physical health, the real challenge lies in developing an exercise routine that we can stick with. It’s much easier to get up and get moving every day when you actually experience the results you’re looking for—whether that’s trimming your waistline, improving your sleep, mood, and energy, or easing symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression.
Whatever benefits you’re looking for from a fitness plan—and whatever your current fitness level—the key is to mix different types of physical activity. The most effective exercise plans should include a mix of three elements: cardio (or aerobic) training, strength training, and flexibility and balance exercises. This will not only maximize the health benefits, it will also keep your workouts varied and interesting.
Of course, you can always sign up for personal training sessions at a gym, find workout plans online, or download a fitness app, but developing the right exercise plan doesn’t have to be that complicated or expensive. These simple guidelines can help you make the most of your time and reap all the health and weight loss rewards of regular exercise.
The important thing to remember about exercise is that something is always better than nothing. By simply sitting less and moving more throughout your day, you can experience health benefits. For substantial health benefits, though, government guidelines in the U.S., UK, and other countries recommend that you aim for:
At least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity activity per week. That’s 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week, broken down into 10-minute bursts if that’s easier.
At least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week will deliver the same benefits, if your fitness level allows you to work out harder. That means running for 15 minutes, for example, instead of walking briskly for 30 minutes.
You can combine both moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise, remembering the general rule of thumb that 2 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise is the equivalent of 1 minute of vigorous-intensity activity.
AND DON'T FORGET TO
Include muscle-strengthening activity at least twice a week as part of your weekly totals.
You can gain additional health benefits by exercising for 300 minutes or more at moderate-intensity (or 150 minutes or more of vigorous-intensity exercise) each week. This can be especially beneficial for weight loss.
If you’ve never exercised before or have been sedentary for a long time, it’s advisable (after consulting with your doctor) to start off slowly and gradually build up to these activity levels. Instead of 30 minutes of walking 5 days a week, for example, start with 5 or 10 minutes and build up from there.
A recent study in the UK found that people who squeeze all their exercise into one or two sessions over the weekend experience almost as many health benefits as those who work out more often. However, spreading your exercise sessions across three or more days a week may help reduce your risk of injury and keep your energy levels up throughout the week.
Whether an activity is low, moderate, or vigorous intensity depends a lot on your personal fitness level. A brisk jog, for example, may be low intensity for a seasoned athlete but vigorous intensity for someone who’s never exercised before.
|How intensely am I exercising?|
|How it feels: Breathing easily, warming up but not yet sweating. Can easily talk in full sentences—or even sing.
|How it feels: You're working, breathing faster, and starting to sweat more. You’re still able to talk in full sentences, but not able to sing.
|How it feels: Really working, breathing hard, sweating hard, and too breathless to talk in full sentences.
It’s safe to say that the ultimate goal for most people who exercise is to boost fitness while spending less time working out. But while most purported shortcuts are simply too good to be true, “interval training”—bursts of vigorous-intensity activity alternating with lower-intensity activity—can actually deliver results.
For example, once you’ve warmed up, instead of walking at a moderate-intensity pace for 30 minutes, try interval training for 20 minutes. Walk at a moderate-intensity pace for one minute followed by jogging at a vigorous-intensity pace for one minute, then back to brisk walking for a minute, and so on. Or, you could alternate brisk walking with skipping rope or doing push-ups.
Alternating intensity in this way not only delivers cardiovascular benefits but can help you to squeeze a better workout into a shorter period of time. And as long as your doctor has cleared you to safely exercise this way, it can also help you lower your blood pressure, lose weight (especially around your middle), and maintain muscle mass. Interval training can also be a great way to vary your workouts and challenge your muscles in new ways.
What it is: Cardiovascular or aerobic exercises are endurance activities that use your large muscle groups in rhythmic motion over a sustained period of time. Cardio workouts get your heart pumping and you’ll breathe harder than normal and may even feel a little short of breath. Cardio activities include:
Why it’s good for you: Whatever your age, cardio can help to increase your lung capacity, strengthen your heart and muscles, and improve your stamina and endurance. Cardio workouts can also:
Walking briskly for just 22 minutes a day will help you to reach your minimum weekly goal of 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise—and in the process, lower your risk of heart disease and obesity. Walking doesn’t require any special skills or training. Aside from a comfortable pair of shoes, you don’t need any specialized equipment, and it can be done almost anywhere. You just have to resolve to get up and go.
Look for creative ways to fit a brisk walk into your daily schedule. Ditch the car and walk to the grocery store, for example, or take a walk during your lunch hour, or walk while you’re talking on the phone.
Use a walk to clear your head. Use the time to take a break from the stressors of everyday life and give yourself some precious alone time. Fresh air and some time to think can work wonders for your mood.
Or make it a social event and walk with others. Invite friends, family members, or work colleagues to walk with you. Taking a walk can provide a great opportunity to catch up with an existing friend or strengthen the bond with a new one.
Enjoy time in nature. Walking in parks, on beaches, or along hiking trails or riverbanks can add to the mood boost you experience from exercising. Spending time in nature can release endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemicals that improve mood and relieve stress.
Walk in a mall or on a treadmill. When the weather’s bad, you can walk briskly around a mall while window shopping or use a treadmill in a gym or health club and catch up on your favorite TV show or podcast.
Walk a dog. If you don’t own a dog, you can volunteer to walk homeless dogs for an animal shelter or rescue group. You’ll not only be helping yourself but also be helping to socialize and exercise the dogs, making them more adoptable.
Adding a mindfulness element to a walk can help break the flow of worries and negative thoughts that many of us experience when we’re stressed, anxious, or depressed. Instead of focusing on your thoughts, focus on how your body feels as you move. Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the feeling of the wind or sunlight on your skin, or the rhythm of your breathing.
What it is: Strength training, sometimes called resistance or power training, builds up muscles with repetitive motion using resistance from free weights, weight machines, elastic bands, or your own body weight. Power training is often strength training done at a faster speed to increase power and reaction times.
Examples of strength and power training activities include:
Why it’s good for you: Strength training builds and tones muscle and increases lean muscle mass. Aside from improving how you look and feel, resistance and power training can also:
You don’t need to spend hours every day lifting weights to enjoy the benefits of strength training. Exercising the major muscle groups—legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms—in 20- to 30-minute sessions twice a week is enough to deliver results and help keep you toned and strong.
Neither do you need to invest in a gym membership or buy expensive equipment for use at home. Inexpensive resistance bands can be used to exercise nearly every muscle in the body—and they can also fit easily into a bag or suitcase so you don’t need to put your fitness regime on pause when you’re traveling or on vacation. There are even plenty of exercises you can do using your own body weight as resistance.
Many of us equate exercising our core with endless sit-ups and unobtainable images of washboard abs. But your core is much more than just your abdominal muscles. Your core stretches from below your breastbone down to your thighs and includes your back, sides, buttocks, and hips as well as your abdomen.
A strong core can help you maintain good posture and carry out many different daily movements that involve twisting, bending, or rotating your body. Everything from getting out of a chair to carrying heavy groceries or reaching for a book on the top shelf are all made easier when you have a strong core.
Strengthening your core can also:
As well as abdominal crunches, activities that are particularly good at targeting your core include yoga, Pilates, swimming, beach volleyball, kayaking or canoeing, rollerblading, surfing or stand-up paddle boarding, using a hula hoop, or performing perhaps the most popular core exercise, the plank.
What it is: Flexibility challenges the ability of your body’s joints to move freely through a full range of motion. Balance maintains stability, whether you’re stationary or moving around.
Good flexibility exercises include:
If you’re already active, chances are you currently engage in exercises that improve balance, such as walking, hiking, cycling, golf, tennis, or strength training (especially core-strength training). However, balance typically worsens as we age, so if you’re an older adult looking to specifically improve your balance, you can do so by trying:
Why it’s good for you: Flexibility helps your body stay limber and increases your range of movement for sports as well as daily physical activities such as reaching, looking behind while driving, and bending to tie your shoes. Flexibility exercises that lengthen and stretch muscles also help to:
Balance exercises can help to improve your posture and reduce your risk of falling as you get older.
Fitness experts advise against stretching before you exercise when your muscles are cold. Rather, stretch only once your muscles are warmed up or after your workout, as part of your cool-down routine.
As well as the meditative and relaxation benefits, low-impact practices such as yoga, Pilates, and tai chi are great for improving flexibility and balance. While there are differences between the forms, each offers plenty of options for the beginner and seasoned practitioner alike.
Yoga. An ancient exercise practice that involves performing different postures and poses on an exercise mat, there are many different types of yoga that can help with flexibility and balance as well as strength and stamina. In addition to the popular types, there are yoga classes modified for different needs, such as prenatal yoga, yoga for seniors, and adaptive yoga modified for disabilities. Most yoga sessions begin with a series of poses to warm up the body, and most sessions end with some type of relaxation exercise.
|Find the type of yoga that's right for you|
|Gentle yoga or Satyananda|
|Focuses on slow stretches, flexibility, deep breathing.
Best for: Beginners, stress reduction.
Not for: Those looking for a vigorous workout.
|Reasonably gentle. Involves stretching, breathing work.
Best for: Beginners, older adults, stress reduction.
Not for: An aerobic, calorie-burning workout.
|Focuses on precise body alignment and improving balance. Uses blocks and straps to maintain poses longer.
Best for: Those looking for more fitness benefits as well as deep relaxation.
Not for: While more vigorous, not a total body workout.
|Fast-paced routine of poses focusing on different ways of breathing, chanting, and meditation.
Best for: Combining a good workout with spirituality.
Not for: Those uncomfortable with chanting or the spiritual aspect.
|Hot yoga (Bikram or Moshka)|
|Takes place in heated rooms (more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit). Focus on stamina and purification.
Best for: Intense, sweaty workout for those with higher fitness levels.
Not for: Anyone with high blood pressure, heart conditions, or those who may react adversely to hot conditions.
|Power yoga or Ashtanga|
|Vigorous, fast-paced to build flexibility, strength, concentration, and stamina.
Best for: Strong workout, improving fitness and weight loss.
Not for: A relaxing, contemplative experience.
Pilates. Like yoga, Pilates can be performed on a mat as a series of low-impact movement patterns, although it most commonly involves the use of resistance machines. A typical Pilates routine includes exercises that promote posture, balance, flexibility, and core strength. Most routines can be tailored according to your strength and fitness levels.
Tai chi. Focusing on a series of slow, precise body movements that flow from one pose to the next, tai chi is a very effective exercise for balance, especially in older adults looking for a safe and gentle exercise. By moving weight from one leg to another, and alternately raising the arms, legs and hands, tai chi varies the weight on different joints, increasing flexibility and range of motion and improving balance and coordination. And by focusing your mind on your movements and breathing, you keep your attention on the present, which clears the mind and leads to a relaxed state.
While you can learn these exercises online, from an instructional book, video, or app, the best and safest way is to learn from a competent instructor.
Committing to a regular, balanced exercise schedule is one of the best things you can do to improve your physical and mental health. However, it’s important to do it safely. Nothing can derail your fitness goals quicker than a medical problem or avoidable injury.
Get medical clearance from your doctor before starting an exercise program, especially if you have a preexisting condition.
Warm up. Warm up gently with dynamic stretches—active movements that warm and flex the muscles you’ll be using, such as leg kicks, walking lunges, or arm swings—and by doing a slower, easier version of the upcoming exercise. For example, if you’re going to run, warm up with walking. Or if you’re lifting weights, begin with a few light reps.
Cool down. After your workout, it’s important to take a few minutes to cool down and allow your heart rate to return to its resting rate. A light jog or walk after a run, for example, or some gentle stretches after strength training.
Drink plenty of water. It may seem obvious, but your body does perform better when it’s properly hydrated. And failing to drink enough water when you’re exerting yourself, especially in hot conditions, can be dangerous.
Listen to your body. If you feel pain or discomfort while working out, stop! Don’t try to power through pain. That’s a surefire recipe for injury.
Sitting for extended periods of time has been linked with numerous health concerns, including elevated blood pressure, high blood sugar, more body fat, and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Whether you spend too much time each day sitting at a desk, behind the wheel of a car, or on the couch watching TV, it’s important to stand up for a couple of minutes every hour.
You’re much more likely to stick with an exercise program that’s fun and rewarding. No amount of willpower is going to keep you going long-term with a workout you hate. For more on making exercise enjoyable and staying motivated, see How to Start Exercising and Stick with It.Last updated or reviewed on March 1, 2023
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