In any given year, 26% of American adults experience mental illness.¹ So far this year, 4.91% of adults report experiencing a severe mental illness. ² And suicide rates have risen by 35% since 1999, with someone dying from suicide every 40 seconds.¹
Research overwhelmingly demonstrates a correlation between physical activity and mental health, with evidence supporting exercise as beneficial in preventing and treating depression, anxiety, and many other mental health conditions.¹ Exercise improves mental health through several pathways, increasing brain neurotransmitters and improving hormonal functions.¹
This guide looks at several mental health benefits of exercise, including which activities are best for those seeking mental well-being.
How does exercise impact mental health?
What exercise is best for mental health?
Anxiety and depression reduction
Better sleeping habits
Healthy weight management
Benefits in children
Physical exercise benefits the body and the mind, providing several rewards, including:¹
- Reducing stress
- Improving mood and quality of life
- Reducing depression
- Reducing symptoms of anxiety disorders
- Benefiting cardiovascular, muscle, and bone health
- Reducing negative psychological symptoms in severe mental illness
- Maintaining healthy weight
- Improving self-esteem
- Improving sleep quality
- Improving cognitive function and memory
- Reducing cognitive decline and dementia
- Improving attention and processing speed
- Supporting healthy immunity
Whether you walk, cycle, jog, swim, or play competitive sports, your participation in physical activity offers immediate and long-term benefits for your mental health.
A 2021 study examined the association between physical exercise and mental health in China during the pandemic. Researchers showed that moderate-intensity activity (60-69% of the maximum heart rate) was more beneficial to mental health than light-intensity or vigorous-intensity exercise.³ The same study showed that exercise sessions between 30 and 60 minutes were associated with the best mental health outcomes.³
Walking is the most accessible form of exercise for most mobile individuals. It does not require equipment, a particular setting or location, and participation fees. Walking for 30 minutes to an hour each day can improve your mental and physical health and has the added reward of getting you out in nature, which is another benefit for those struggling with depression or anxiety. You can walk solo and set your own pace or join friends or a group to keep you engaged and motivated.
Additional physical activities that are beneficial to mental health and wellbeing include:
- Elliptical training
- Balance exercises
- Upper body ergometer
- Tai Chi
- Jumping rope
- Strength training
- Weight training
- Resistance training
- Step aerobics
- Dance therapy
- Movement therapy
- Cross-country skiing
- Martial arts
- Team sports
Physical activity triggers brain chemicals that produce feelings of relaxation and happiness. No matter what intensity or form of exercise you engage in, research unequivocally shows that it can improve your mood and lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety.
A 2019 study showed that physical activity reduces the risk of major depressive disorder and improves symptoms in those who are depressed.⁴
Focus and concentration can be hard to come by in the world of distractions we live in today. But improving our ability to concentrate makes us more productive, less stressed, and happier about our work. Exercise can improve concentration and cognitive function in people of all ages and fitness levels.
In a study on older adults between 55 and 80 years of age using data from 18 randomized exercise interventions, researchers showed that exercise training increased cognitive performance by half a standard deviation.⁵ The same study showed that aerobic activity, in particular, is associated with general benefits in cognition.⁵
In numerous studies and meta-analyses, physical exercise has demonstrated the ability to prevent and treat anxiety and depression.¹ ³ ⁴ Exercise reduces cortisol levels — the body’s primary stress hormone — while stimulating the production of endorphins that make us feel happy and relaxed.
For treating depression, scientific evidence suggests an exercise routine that:¹
- Includes both aerobic and resistance training
- Occurs 4-5 times each week
- Integrates into treatment
- Is supervised individually or in groups
- Increases gradually to reach moderate-to-high intensity levels for 30-45 minutes per session
- Takes into account the patient’s preferences, culture, and community
In addition to the bulleted points above for depression, treatment for anxiety should integrate restorative, mindful, and/or meditative exercises at least 1-2 times each week.¹ Everyone is different when it comes to reducing exercise anxiety. Some find immediate stress relief when working out, while others may see an increase in anxiety after training sessions.
The CDC estimates that nearly 30% of American adults get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night for optimal health. Approximately two-thirds of teenagers receive less than the recommended eight to ten hours.⁶
A 2017 review of sleep and exercise studies showed that physical exercise is an effective intervention for those suffering from sleep issues.⁶ Regular exercise can improve the quality of sleep, which in turn reflects upon mental wellness and stress relief. Physical activity should be limited to earlier in the day, as late-night exercise can boost energy and impede sleep.
Healthy weight management contributes to mental health, providing stronger self-esteem and keeping your hormones and neurotransmitters working in good order. To lose weight, an individual must burn more calories than they take in. Exercise burns those calories and also helps to reduce:⁷
- Symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Risk of several forms of cancer
- Arthritis pain
- Risk of osteoporosis and falls
Aside from trimming your waistline, regular exercise can boost your confidence and self-esteem. Team sports engage us with others, satisfying our need for interpersonal connection, while solitary sports can challenge our strength, skills, and stamina.
Your self-confidence will continue to grow as you attain greater mastery, skill, and endurance in any given exercise regimen or physical activity.
Another great benefit of team sports is that they serve as breeding grounds for leadership qualities. Studies have shown that adolescents participating in competitive sports demonstrated more remarkable leadership abilities than their nonathletic peers.⁸
Working as a team develops and cultivates communication skills, which benefit everything in our lives, from the workplace to the family room. Even solitary exercises can help build leadership skills by challenging us and centering our minds upon a clear objective.
Engaging children in physical activities and sports sets them on a path to becoming active and healthy adults. Regular exercise establishes wholesome routines and habits, and participation in team sports can improve academic performance. Children’s sports activities also help to guide a child in social development and engage them in collaborative thinking.
Factors to consider regarding childhood and adolescent sports
When choosing a physical activity for your child’s participation, it’s essential to consider several factors, such as the child’s interests, the family budget, and any health concerns.
Popular team sports like ice hockey, American football, and rugby are causes of frequent injuries in players, contributing to hospital bills, physical therapy, and in the worst cases, permanent, lifelong damage.
Repeated head trauma, concussions, and injuries have gained attention recently, persuading many parents to urge their kids away from team sports like football and hockey. Repeated head injuries can lead to neurological complications, including depression, reduced cognition, and suicidal ideation.
From the first-grader to the 70-year-old grandparent, exercise provides a gateway to optimum mental and physical health and improved quality of life. Whether you are approaching physical activity to treat a current mental illness or would like to prevent any in the future, committing to a regular exercise routine will serve you well.
Research the sport or exercise you’re interested in and give it a try. Join a league or enter classes for beginners. After all, nothing boosts our mental health more than accomplishing a goal that has inspired us.
If you suffer from any chronic medical condition, you should speak to a doctor or physical therapist before engaging in a new activity or sport. Discuss your latest physical results with your physician regarding any heart conditions or other issues that might limit strenuous exercise.
And if competitive or team sports are not your thing, remember that just a 30-minute walk every day can contribute to a healthier, happier mind.
 Move your mental health: A review of the scientific evidence on the role exercise and physical activity in mental health (2021). John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation. Retrieved on July 18, 2022, from https://www.johnwbrickfoundation.org/move-your-mental-health-report/.
 Adult ranking 2022. Mental Health America. Retrieved on July 18, 2022, from https://www.mhanational.org/issues/2022/mental-health-america-adult-data.
 Nie, Y., Ma, Y., et al. Association between physical exercise and mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak in China: A nationwide cross-sectional study (2021, August 16). Frontiers in Psychiatry. Retrieved on July 18, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.722448/full.
 Choi, K., Chen, C., et al. (2019, January 23). Assessment of bidirectional relationships between physical activity and depression among adults. JAMA Psychiatry. Retrieved on July 19, 2022, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2720689.
 Gomez-Pinilla, F. and Hillman, C. (2013, January 3). The influence of exercise on cognitive abilities. National Library of Medicine, PubMed Central. Retrieved on July 20, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951958/.
 Dolezal, B., Neurfeld, E., et al. (2017, March 26). Interrelationship between sleep and exercise: A systematic review. National Library of Medicine, PubMed Central. Retrieved on July 20, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5385214/.
 Physical activity for a healthy weight (2022, June 16). Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health. Retrieved on June 20, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/physical_activity/.
 Dobosz, R. and Beaty, L. (1999, Spring). The relationship between athletic participation and high school students’ leadership ability. PubMed. Retrieved on July 20, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10234379/.