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The 5 best exercises for your mental health

by Georgina 8 minutes read

Last updated: 19 Sep, 2023

Exercise has long been celebrated for its impact on physical well-being, but the benefits of exercise extend far beyond the realm of physical fitness. Engaging in regular exercise has been proven to serve as a powerful, and natural, tool for enhancing your mental health. But not all types of exercise are created equal, and some certainly stand out above the rest when it comes to improving mental well-being. A lot of the best mental health exercises are aerobic, but the list certainly doesn’t stop there. Strength and endurance exercises can also have an equally positive impact. We'll be taking a look into the top physical activities that not only sculpt our bodies but also nurture our minds.

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Whether it’s a gentle stroll or a power walk, this is one of the easiest and most accessible exercises out there. You can take the dog out for a long nature wander or switch that short drive to work to travel on foot instead. No matter how you decide to do it, you can start including more walking into your daily life in a variety of ways. You don’t have to speed walk for a full hour to feel the effects, just 15 minutes walking at a moderate speed can produce mental health benefits.

Walking can help you get more fresh air and change up your environment by moving you into natural scenery, which can clear away negative thoughts and ground you in the present, particularly if you practice mindful walking. Also often referred to as walking meditation, it is a practice that combines the physical activity of walking with mindfulness techniques. It involves paying full attention to the experience of walking and being present in the moment. You can begin with a gentle stroll and build up to faster walks, or you can maintain a slower pace, focussing on your movements if you prefer. The former can help produce more endophins and help you feel happier, whilst the latter can slow down your mind and ease anxieties. Whatever works best for you.

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One of the most widely recognised exercises to provide both mental and physical health benefits is running, an option you should absolutely consider. Like walking, running is a free activity that can take place anywhere, anytime. But it is also a higher intensity exercise that produces endorphins, creating a sense of calm, well-being and even mild euphoria. When you go for a run, your brain releases feel-good chemicals that reduce stress and lift your mood.

Whilst running on a treadmill will still elicit these same endorphin releases, we recommend you do spend time running outside if you can, so that you also experience the fresh air and natural scenery that can accompany running, to generate feelings of calmness, joy and concentration which are proven to help with mental health issues and to ease symptoms of depression. It will give you time to think and clear your head, helping you tackle life's challenges with a fresh perspective.

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Weight training

While strength training might be easily overlooked for its impact on your mental health compared to other physical activity, resistance exercises, even of low to moderate intensity, can actually work wonders to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Weight training isn't just about building muscle and strength; it has been proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, while also enhancing overall cognitive function and building self-esteem. Lifting weights helps your body release endorphins, natural mood elevators, that help combat stress and promote a more positive outlook that you carry with you outside of the gym.

Moreover, the discipline required in weight training fosters mental resilience and determination, which can extend beyond the gym into various aspects of your life. You can set yourself small goals or big goals, but what’s important is setting realistic goals for yourself. That ensures we can both challenge and improve ourselves without feeling disappointed and unmotivated to continue if we fail to meet them. This is a lesson we can all transfer from the gym into our daily lives and help us manage and overcome the disappointments we face. So, if you're looking to build up not only your physique but also your mental fortitude, weight training is a strong choice.

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Low intensity and suitable for all, yoga is an excellent form of exercise to help you release all the anxious feelings stored up inside you. There’s a huge array of new trendy yoga classes out there, from hot yoga, to flying yoga, to puppy yoga. Even wider is the range of yoga styles, like Hatha yoga, or Iyengar yoga, or kundalini yoga.

But at its core yoga is about the release of tension. The focus and presence of mind promoted in yoga helps you to establish a healthier mind-body connection and the meditation and breathing exercises inherent to yoga can help with greater relaxation and calm. Your mind being in tune with your body and vice versa can have a range of benefits. It can help ground you in the present and move you out of excessive overthinking to let you truly experience your feelings in the present moment and channel them. Yoga has been proven to decrease your heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and cardiac output and increase your serotonin levels, all helping you feel less stressed and happier.

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HIIT (High intensity interval training)

Amongst all the exercises on this list, HIIT might be the most challenging. But, in terms of endorphin release, it may also be the most rewarding. It gets your body and heart rate going with quick bursts of energy and short breaks, producing those necessary happy chemicals to boost your mood and release pent-up stress. HIIT also sharpens your thinking and memory skills. Recent studies have shown vigorous exercise helps to increase the levels of two neurotransmitters - glutamate and GABA - which are in charge of chemical messaging in the brain, as well as the protein BDNF which plays a similar role. Major depressive disorders have been linked to a depletion in these chemicals and proteins, showing how intensive exercise can have a huge impact in reducing the symptoms and likelihood of depression.

When you try HIIT, you learn to push through the tough moments, and appreciate the rest periods, increasing your mental fortitude and practice of gratitude, even for the small things in life. Just a short HIIT workout, super convenient for anyone on limited time, can provide a myriad of benefits to help slow your mind, focus your breathing and engage in the now. It can help you forget about any of those nagging anxieties swirling around your mind, even if only for 30 minutes every now and again.

Ultimately do whatever exercise works best for you. Maybe you feel best after swimming some lengths or stretching it out in Tai Chi. Regardless, any exercise is better than no exercise and just 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, 3 days a week, can improve your mental health by boosting your mood, reducing anxiety, improving sleep and increasing your energy. Of course, exercise isn’t a fix-all solution, and for some their mental health conditions are too severe to move much at all, but if you’re capable and it can help then it’s worth a try. If you feel too uncomfortable to start hitting the gym or a class, you can try taking a friend along with you for support or start off on one of the exercises you can do alone like running or walking. But, nowadays, in the age of the internet, pretty much all of these exercises can be done alone. As long as you have the right equipment and access to some YouTube videos, there’s nothing that can hold you back!

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