Why Exercise Should Be Part of Your Mental Health Routine

For optimal mental health, you must take care of all aspects of your well-being, and that includes staying physically active. A survey conducted by Grow Therapy on the state of mental health in America found that outside of formal mental health treatment, therapists say exercise is the second most recommended intervention for people to improve their mental health.

grow therapy therapist candy taylor ceballos By Candy Taylor-Ceballos, LCSW

Updated on Apr 30, 2024

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Your mental health and physical health may be connected more than you think.  

For optimal mental health, you must take care of all aspects of your well-being, and that includes staying physically active. A survey conducted by Grow Therapy on the state of mental health in America found that outside of formal mental health treatment, therapists say exercise is the second most recommended intervention for people to improve their mental health. Not to mention, a large study of over one million adults determined that those who exercise experience better mental health than those who do not.

Here’s what you need to know about all the benefits of exercise, why movement is so important, and how you can incorporate it into your routine. 

The Benefits of Exercise

Healthcare providers worldwide recommend maintaining an exercise routine, and with good reason. From preventing chronic disease to improving symptoms of mental health conditions, there are so many reasons to get moving.

How Exercise Impacts Your Physical Health

Exercise is one of the best tools for improving your physical health – both in the short and long term. Some positive impacts of exercise on physical health include:

How Exercise Impacts Your Mental Health

Although exercise is so physical, there’s no denying it strongly affects the brain. You might find that once you start working out, both your body and mind will thank you. “In the simplest terms, when we make our bodies feel better, it’s easier to make our brains feel better,” says Melissa Galica, a licensed professional counselor with Grow Therapy. 

Digging deeper into the perks, here are some mental health benefits of regular exercise.

Types of Exercise for Mental Health Conditions

Many mental health conditions and symptoms can benefit from exercise. Hester says physical activity can serve as one of the pillars for a holistic, systemic approach to treating mental health conditions.

“It can work in conjunction with individual and/or group therapy sessions, medication, and other healthy life changes,” says Hester.

When it comes to mental health, any exercise is better than no exercise. However, here are some ideas regarding a few specific mental health disorders. 

Exercise for Major Depressive Disorder 

Research shows that for people with depression (who are not severely depressed), regular exercise may be just as effective as prescription antidepressants. Aerobic exercise (meaning cardio) and non-aerobic exercise (such as weightlifting) are both proven to reduce depressive symptoms. For people with more severe major depression, exercise can be a very beneficial add-on to antidepressants

Exercise for Anxiety Disorders

People with anxiety disorders can experience reduced symptoms by exercising. Some research has found that high-intensity workouts are more effective at relieving anxiety than low-intensity workouts. However, more relaxing physical activities such as yoga and tai chi are also proven to help relieve anxiety symptoms. 

Exercise for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Research has found benefits of aerobic exercise for people with PTSD. Vigorous physical activity may help those with PTSD who struggle with ongoing hyperarousal. Plus, it can help them with improved cognitive functioning. Anxiety and depression symptoms associated with PTSD will also be reduced. 

Exercise for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Regular physical activity can help reduce impulsivity and hyperactivity symptoms while also improving attention and executive functioning. Research has based this primarily on people with ADHD doing aerobic exercise.

Exercise for Substance Abuse

Exercise can be a beneficial tool in addiction recovery. It can give people a healthy outlet for difficult emotions, add structure to their days, and distract them from drug or alcohol cravings. Research shows that among people in recovery, exercise can improve their ability to abstain from the substance and lessen withdrawal symptoms.

How to Incorporate Exercise Into Your Routine

If you aren’t already physically active, getting started can be the hardest part. As with any habit, it will take time to build it, stick to it, and integrate it into your life. 

Here are five tips for incorporating regular exercise into your routine.  

1. Start small

If you want to become physically active, take baby steps and make small changes. “Anything too drastic, and your brain will say, ‘Nope,’” Galica advises. This will make it easier for your brain to find the motivation to work out. Plus, it’s easier on your body if you’re out of shape. So, instead of setting an immediate goal of trying to go for a mile-long run, try to start out with something little.

“Thinking 10 minutes is better than no minutes is the way to go,” says Hester. “Once the body is capable of taking more and is responding to more (with the appropriate assessment of trained professionals or your medical doctor), you can increase to 20 minutes, and so on.” 

Especially when starting out, you want to avoid overexertion and injuries. If you’re feeling pain, stop. Also, if you feel too short of breath, lightheaded, or dizzy, take a break and have some water before deciding if you should continue. Don’t force yourself if it’s at the expense of your health, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a health professional with any concerns. 

2. Do what’s fun for you

Some people may hate long runs but love yoga classes, and vice versa. It’s all about finding what’s fun and effective for you. Ultimately, you want to be able to enjoy your workout so you can look forward to it rather than dread it. It might take some trial and error to figure out what type of workout or sport you like the best, so have fun exploring until you find something that sticks. Between online workout videos, the gym, the outdoors, and group fitness classes, there are so many options. Additionally, you can switch things up so you don’t get bored of doing the same thing over and over. 

“Do what your body enjoys when it comes to physical activity, always respecting your limits and boundaries,” Hester says. 

3. Have accountability buddies

Maintaining an exercise routine might be easier if you have someone holding you to it and pushing you to reach your goals. Hester says one idea is to join a fitness group to find support and accountability. You’ll be supporting other people in your shoes, too. You’ll probably be more likely to stick to your word and plans if you let someone else know your plan – especially if you make plans to do it together.

Hester says this has the added bonus of reducing loneliness and isolation – and social support is great for mental health in general, too. 

4. Be kind to yourself

As with anything else in life, it’s crucial to have self-compassion. Galica’s advice is to be kind to yourself and show yourself grace as you form new habits. It can also help to avoid comparing yourself to other people and to remember that nobody’s perfect, she says. You probably won’t be a pro off the bat with whatever activity or sport you try – and that’s okay. Plus, there are sure to be times when life gets in the way and your plan to exercise gets derailed.

If you miss a session, be compassionate to yourself, and don’t let this derail you or allow it to take away from everything that you’ve accomplished thus far, Hester says. Just get back on track next time.

5. Give yourself a pat on the back

What you’re doing isn’t easy! It takes hard work and dedication to maintain an exercise routine, especially if you’re new to it. Give yourself credit where credit is due. You can even give yourself little rewards when you accomplish the small goals you set for yourself or notice your fitness level improving.

“Celebrate the wins,” Galicia says. “Healthy is a marathon, not a sprint.” 

As long as your doctor gives you the green light to start exercising, there’s no reason you shouldn’t. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when some mental health conditions can make it really difficult to find the motivation and energy to do so. However, once you get in the swing of it, you’ll reap the benefits – especially if you pair exercise along with other healthy lifestyle changes, self-care, and psychotherapy. Just be sure to check with your healthcare provider before starting a new exercise routine, especially if you have any pre-existing conditions.

The bottom line: Don’t underestimate the power of exercise for mental health. Get up and start moving today. No step is too small.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
grow therapy therapist candy taylor ceballos Candy Taylor-Ceballos, LCSW

Candy Taylor-Ceballos is a bilingual and bicultural therapist with over 10 years of experience specializing in work with children, adolescents, families, and newly/expecting mothers.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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