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 managing 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
Our guide looks at several mental health benefits of exercise, including which activities are best for those seeking mental well-being.
Physical exercise benefits the body and the mind, providing several rewards, including:1
Whether you walk, cycle, jog, swim, or play competitive sports, participating 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. Except for quality footwear, it does not require equipment, a particular setting or location, or participation fees. Walking daily for 30 minutes to an hour 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 well-being include:
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 is associated with a reduced risk of major depressive disorder (MDD) and improvement in 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 correlates with reduced 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.
You don’t have to jump into an intense exercise regimen immediately; it’s best to start slowly and work your way up instead of setting unrealistic standards for yourself. When you feel ready, an exercise routine that scientific evidence suggests for treating depression includes:1
In addition to the bulleted points above for depression, treatment for anxiety should integrate restorative, mindful, 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 Getting enough rest is vital for many body and brain functions, and not getting adequate amounts can impact cognitive function (learning, attention, memory) and emotional regulation. Sleep problems, like insomnia, can also play a part in the onset or worsening of depression and anxiety.9
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 sleep quality, bettering your 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 can contribute to better mental health, provide stronger self-esteem and keep your hormones and neurotransmitters in good working order. If someone wants to lose weight, they have to burn more calories than they take in. Exercise is a way to burn those calories, and it also helps to reduce:7
Regular exercise can boost your confidence and self-esteem while improving your body image. 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.
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.
Ultimately, it’s up to parents to decide which activity best suits their child’s interests, abilities, and overall health, while considering the risk of any possible injuries. One way to balance out injury risks is by encouraging safe participation in sports and activities.
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 optimize your emotional wellness, committing to a regular exercise routine can serve you well.
If you’re unsure where to start, consider researching the sport or exercise you're interested in, joining a league, or entering classes for beginners.
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.
Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation. (2021). Move your mental health: A review of the scientific evidence on the role exercise and physical activity in mental health. John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://www.johnwbrickfoundation.org/move-your-mental-health-report/.
Mental Health America. (2022). Adult ranking 2022. Mental Health America. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://www.mhanational.org/issues/2022/mental-health-america-adult-data.
Nie, Y., Ma, Y., et al. (2021, August 16). Association between physical exercise and mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak in China: A nationwide cross-sectional study. Frontiers in Psychiatry. Retrieved March 7, 2023, 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 March 7, 2023, 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 March 7, 2023, 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 March 7, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5385214/.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, June 16). Physical activity for a healthy weight. Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health. Retrieved March 7, 2023, 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. Adolescence. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10234379/.
Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. (2022, March 16). How Sleep Deprivation Impacts Mental Health. Columbia University. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://www.columbiapsychiatry.org/news/how-sleep-deprivation-affects-your-mental-health.