Man running up the stairs outside

Which Exercise Is Best for Your Mental Health?

The AskMen editorial team thoroughly researches & reviews the best gear, services and staples for life. AskMen may get paid if you click a link in this article and buy a product or service.

Everybody knows the physical benefits of regular exercise. It can help you gain strength, keep off excess weight, improve stamina, and keep your heart and lungs in top shape, but what about the mental benefits? It turns out there are plenty of those, too.

One study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry Journal in 2018, looking at 1.2 million people in the U.S., found that people who exercise report having 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health a month, compared to people who do not exercise. Max Castrogaleas MA, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F,*D, EP-C, FRCMS, an exercise physiologist at HSS, too, says “exercise is an important contributor to mental health.”

“Research shows that regular participation in exercise and physical activity can help reduce the risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders. In addition, individuals who report higher levels of physical activity have a lower risk of experiencing depression or anxiety,” he adds.

But are all forms of exercise and fitness equal when it comes to benefiting your mental health? To get the answer we checked in with a few of our favorite fitness pros.

Top Mental Health Benefits of Working Out

Boosts your mood: When you move your body you release endorphins – the positive chemicals in your brain that boost your mood and help you feel relaxed. “Endorphins are chemicals released by the body that provide a sense of euphoria, boost confidence, combat stress, and depression," says Keith Hodges, certified personal trainer, performance coach, and founder of Mind In Muscle Coaching. "These positive side effects are spawned after the endorphins interact with the receptors in the brain, providing an increased sense of well-being.”

While it’s certainly not the case for all people, studies have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in reducing symptoms of depression.

Improve cognitive function: Working out can also help your mind stay sharp and clear. Hodges notes that consistent exercise has been proven to decrease the risk of dementia and studies have confirmed this as well. “Consistent exercise also helps with our cognitive function, which is important as the front part of our brains, associated with executive function, begins to atrophy after the age of 21,” adds Manoj Dias, VP of Mindfulness + Co-founder at Open. “Combined with a mindfulness practice, you can care for your brain and ensure it’s healthy well into old age.”

What Workouts Are Good for Mental Health?

Anything you enjoy is a good option: Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it – there isn’t one specific activity that is deemed the best workout for mental health. This really varies from person to person and depends on your day-to-day preferences and needs as well. “I recommend choosing in the form of exercise or a hobby that you enjoy the most,” says Hodges. “Something as simple as going for a 10-minute walk as an outlet goes a long way. If you enjoy boxing or MMA, try hitting the heavy bag or take a self-defense class as a stress reliever. If you enjoy basketball, go shoot some hoops. The key is to find a physical activity that brings you the most satisfaction.”

Switch things up: You don’t need to stick to one activity exclusively – in terms of fitness goals, it’s best if you switch things up. You want to make sure you have options, so you don’t end up skipping the workout or activity altogether. “Try to think of multiple exercises or physical activities that you enjoy, this way you always have a backup plan,” says Castrogaleas.

Get those minutes in: If you’re new to the workout world and trying to get a sense of what you like, Castrogaleas suggests you “start by engaging in various forms of exercise or physical activities that can help you meet the physical activity guidelines of [minimum] 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week.” He recommends aiming for two to three days of resistance training and leaving the other two to three days flexible.

Try social settings and getting outside: Whatever you decide to do for a workout, keep your setting and surroundings in mind, too. The Lancet Psychiatry Journal study, mentioned above, also found that those who participated in team sports, cycling, aerobics, and going to the gym were associated with the biggest reductions in poor mental health days. Multiple studies have found ties between improved mental health and working out in a social setting or as a team. And researchers have found mental health improves when people tackle their workouts in the great outdoors as well.

Good Workouts to Start With

Of course, the workout that best benefits your mental health will be unique to your interests and needs. However, when it comes to relaxing and reducing anxiety and stress, there are a couple of workouts that remain popular picks among the masses.

Yoga: “Yoga is a great exercise that allows the individual to connect the mind and the body throughout various poses that are performed with controlled movement and breathing,” says Castrogaleas.

Running: “Running helps release ‘feel good’ hormones resulting in a runner’s high. When the run is completed you feel like so much weight has been lifted off your shoulders and there is a decreased level of stress,” he adds.

Dias notes that at his training center Open, you can experience the perfect blend of mindfulness and aerobics. “Some of our most popular classes are our signature Open experiences which combine the best of yoga, Pilates, cardio, and mindfulness. I would recommend these practices to anyone hoping to start centering self-care and mindfulness rituals,” he says.

You Might Also Dig:

AskMen may get paid if you click a link in this article and buy a product or service. To find out more, please read our complete terms of use.