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The Best Types of Exercise for Mental Health

The Best Types of Exercise for Mental Health

This material has been reviewed for accuracy by: Renee Albers, PhD

You have probably heard time and time again that exercise is beneficial for your mental health.

Young woman doing yoga to help with her depressionIt’s true. Regular exercise can help manage depression symptoms, boost overall mood, reduce cognitive issues, and alleviate anxiety and stress, along with many other mental benefits of exercise.

This is because physical activity directly affects the brain. Exercise increases blood circulation and the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein found in parts of the brain that aids in thinking, memory, and learning, all of which may help provide relief for mental illness.

What are the mental health benefits of exercise?

In addition to the scientific reasons that working out can improve your mental health, there are many other benefits that may not be as obvious or measurable.

Some of the ancillary benefits of exercise on mental health may include improved body image, routine, and a sense of pride and accomplishment. Even if you are not exercising primarily for weight loss or muscle gain, results including feeling stronger and having more physical capacity may indirectly benefit your sense of self-worth and overall well-being.

Once you commit to exercising regularly, your workouts become routine. For instance, if you jump rope every day at 8 am, it will soon become a standard practice and you will no longer have to spend time debating if/when/how you might exercise that day. There are many other benefits of having a routine.

Having scheduled time dedicated to your health may improve the stresses many people feel when making decisions.

“Carrying out routine activities reduces stress by making the situation appear more controllable and predictable,” according to Indumathi Bendi, M.D., a primary care physician at Piedmont an in article by Piedmont Health Care. “Preparedness is a key way to prevent stress.”

How does exercise help depression and anxiety?

For many, working out is a way to set and conquer personal goals. Whether you’re interested in running a marathon or doing a pushup, setting attainable and measurable objectives is a way to maintain control and keep your interest in physical activity.

Anxiety and depression symptoms can rob you of the power and/or control you have over your environment or your life. By setting and reaching physical goals for yourself, you gain a sense of pride, accomplishment, and control.

Rewarding yourself for surpassing these goals can provide great incentive to continue to work towards your ideal physical fitness level and set new, harder-to-achieve goals. Goals should be personal – you can decide exactly what you are working for and why, and how to reward yourself accordingly.

Depression and anxiety: Exercise may ease symptoms

Button reading Find a ProviderFeeling proud and grateful for your body and its capabilities can particularly help people who struggle with mental health issues. By pushing yourself to improve your physical abilities, you grow a connection between mind and body and an appreciation of your physical form.

“Try to notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin,” according to an article in HelpGuide.org. “By adding this mindfulness element – really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise – you’ll not only improve your physical condition faster, but you may also be able to interrupt the flow of constant worries running through your head.”

This appreciation is especially important to those who struggle with mental health disorders that take a more tangible toll on your body.

While improvements in mental health can be subtle, improvements through exercise are far more perceptible and are a great way to mark success on your overall journey towards well-being.

What exercise is best for mental health?

While most people think “exercise = running,” there are many other options to get the heart pumping.

The four kinds of exercise are cardiovascular, strength training, balance, and flexibility.

And within those categories there are even more options. There’s yoga and Pilates. There’s basketball, cycling, dancing, weight training, bowling, gymnastics, golf, boxing, swimming, barre, and so much more.

Young black man stretching before a run to help with mental healthA study published in Lancet Psychiatry explored which forms of exercise best improve mental health. In the study, researchers evaluated survey information that asked respondents to list what activity they participated in along with how many poor mental health days they experienced in the past month. While the researchers found that all types of exercise were beneficial for mental health, team sports had the best percentage for the least amount of bad mental health days.

Team sports such as basketball, soccer, baseball, and volleyball can be beneficial to mental health from a physical activity and social perspective. Forming friendships through hobbies has been known to help with depression and ease social anxiety. Similarly, these activities require you to spend time in a new environment, breaking up your typical routine or surroundings and potentially helping you out of unhealthy patterns.

Exercises for individuals who have mental health conditions

Team sports not for you? The Lancet Psychiatry study found the following exercises that can be done on an individual basis may be beneficial for mental health:

Yoga – According to an article on the American Psychological Association website, “yoga may help strengthen social attachments, reduce stress and relieve anxiety, depression and insomnia.” Reducing stress levels may be beneficial for those who have uncontrollable negative thoughts, which can occur in people with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

Cycling – According to an article on the bikebiz.com, cycling has multiple mental health benefits, including reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. The article also notes that cycling can help you with your mindfulness practice, make improvements to your self-esteem, defend against cognitive decline, and help you to socialize.

Running – A documentary photographer, Martin Eberleen, found running to be the right exercise for him after he was diagnosed with ADHD. He explained to BBC News: “Running helps me control my thoughts, it slows me down, and gives me the opportunity to focus on the things I need to focus on.”  Additionally, a review article published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that, “overall, studies suggest that running bouts of variable lengths and intensities, and running interventions can improve mood and mental health.”

Aerobic or gym exerciseThe Lancet Psychiatry study found that aerobic or gym exercise helped promote good mental health. Examples of this type of exercise include rope skipping, boxing, weightlifting, or using a rowing or elliptical machine.

Do the exercise that’s best for you

If you’re interested in using exercise to improve your mental health, this list of activities can serve as a good place to start when figuring out what type of exercise best suits your lifestyle and mentality.

However, everyone has different interests and needs, so don’t feel limited to these options or discouraged if an activity doesn’t meet your expectations. It may take some time to find the right fit, but your mental health is worth it. It is important to choose an activity that you will be able to do consistently; if it is too challenging then you will be less likely to incorporate it into your routine and appreciate its full benefits.

The key is to do what is most enjoyable for YOU. You got this!

* Please consult with your healthcare provider prior to starting an exercise program.

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