What are the Best Exercises for Mental Health?

best exercises for mental health

Whether it’s general health or improved aesthetics, the physical effects of exercise are often the primary motivator for lacing up running shoes or stacking up those barbells. And that’s great. Exercise is an essential part of physical health, and is rightly lauded for it. 

But the wonders of physical exertion don’t end there. As we explored in a previous article looking into the benefits of exercise and gym for mental health, many recent studies have found that exercise has positive benefits towards mental wellness too. They suggest tangible improvements in mood and decreased feelings of stress and anxiety [1]. It can be concluded that exercise is more than just for physical health, it’s for health in general. 

Now we know that exercise is indeed beneficial for it, it’s worth investigating which types of exercise are the best for mental health. With the help of reliable studies and research, let’s see what we can find out. 

1) Resistance training

We’ll start in the gym. Resistance training (or training with weights) has been found to lower stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms. One study found that resistance training can have significant improvement in anxiety symptoms [2], while another discovered resistance training can reduce depressive symptoms [3]. For both studies, the positive effect existed for both healthy participants and those with an existing mental illness. 

While many studies link the mental health benefits to physiological responses (such as the release of endorphins), there are also external reasons for such improvement. For example, exercise can increase self-efficacy — a type of self-confidence and self-belief [4]. The structure and purpose-driven nature of resistance training, allows you to be aware of yourself achieving your gym goals. This provides self-belief that when you set goals, you can achieve them. This is self-efficacy. Building this skill applies to other types of exercise, as well as in general day-to-day life. 

2) Running

There’s something freeing about the sense of freedom there for this one. No gym membership and no special equipment. Just yourself, open space and your own motivation.

In terms of research around running and mental health, there are countless studies that conclude the same thing. Running can be a therapeutic tool for a series of negative psychological conditions, such as depression, anxiety, tension, mood changes and low self-esteem [5]. 

But it expands further, with multiple memoirs giving anecdotal evidence for the positive effect of running on mental health. From reducing crippling anxiety in Jog On: How Running Saved My Life to Running For Our Lives, to Depression Hates a Moving Target, the incredible mental health benefits are as expansive and far-reaching as an ultra-marathon. 

running for mental health

3) Sports

Adding a blanket ‘sports’ here is rather vague, we know, but the idea is here to emphasise the social benefits of what it means to play, exercise and compete with other people – a trait most sports share.

This takes many different forms. You could be in a rugby team, fiercely competing in a league-deciding crunch match. Conversely, you could be part of a club that enjoys a slower-paced round of golf on a dewy Sunday morning. Very different in form, but similar in result – social connections that create a sense of belonging, and competing, either in an organised team or casually with friends. 

And research supports this. For participants diagnosed with a mental illness and those not, sports participation has been shown to provide individuals with a sense of meaning, identity and belonging [3]. Competing in a team can help build social connections and a sense of unity. Winning together. Losing together. Feeling part of something can provide powerful benefits to self-esteem and confidence. 

Having said all that, there are considerations with sports when it comes to mental health. First, there is the risk of physical injury, which is almost inevitable in high-contact sports like football or rugby. This may set you back weeks or months, potentially leading to a drop in mood.

There’s also fear of failure. If you’re part of a competitive team, this fear can cause anxiety pre and even post-activity, should you be prone to over-analysing your performance. It’s important to recognise these and be honest with yourself when it comes to how much it benefits you, and whether the balance is right for you.

4) Boxing training

Boxing improves cardiovascular fitness, balance and endurance. And those are just the physical benefits. From a mental health perspective, boxing fosters confidence, concentration and resilience. 

Then there’s the stress and anger relief. Connecting with a heavy bag (or sparring partner) offers a unique form of release. That feeling of striking an object with a powerful punch is known to express and transmute rage, and rather than keeping your emotions bottled, the act of punching allows a healthy and productive outlet. This means boxing is a great way to support stress and anger management.

In terms of research, evidence indicates that non-contact boxing exercises are a promising intervention to improve mental health burden. Boxing provided a cathartic release of anger and stress, with evidence of improved mood, self-esteem, confidence, concentration, strength and coordination [5].

5) Walking

Like running, walking is free and very accessible. This is true in both our ability to stroll out of the door and begin as we please, as well as the ability to choose our own pace and intensity. This means all ages and levels can take part. It’s also an excellent way to exercise while nurturing an injury.

Research suggests that walking also has well-established positive relationships with effects on both physical and mental health, with studies showing that regular walking reduces anxiety and depression [1].

If you live somewhere with access to more natural greenery, the benefits are even better, with one study identifying a significant correlation between psychological responses to walking through forests and trait anxiety levels. The results revealed that walking through forest areas decreased the negative moods and improved the participants’ positive moods compared with walking through city areas [6]. This isn’t to say strolling in an urban metropolis isn’t worth doing, it’s just that being around trees and nature is preferable for extracting optimal mindfulness. 

6) Swimming

Swimming shares the general benefits of many cardiovascular exercises, such as improved moods through endorphin release and increased self-efficacy via measured progress. But it has one thing the others don’t – a forced detraction from the digital. Unless you want to destroy your phone, that is.

The screenless atmosphere a swimming pool creates helps to alleviate stress and encourages relaxation and creativity. You can’t take your phone in the pool with you, so it gives you a rest from the buzzing digital world. This is unlike gyms, where the temptation of social media scrolling between sets is rife. Swimming removes that urge, and it’s just you and the pool.

There’s also the added bonus that the feeling of water moving over our body creates a massage-like sensation, and is great for nurturing injuries or recovering from other intense exercises, such as running and heavy-handed sports. 

7) Yoga

An activity that is over 3,000 years old and practised for generations, yoga is an essential mention when it comes to the best exercises for mental health. Just look at this definition – ‘Yoga is a form of mind-body fitness that involves a combination of muscular activity and an internally directed mindful focus on awareness of the self, the breath, and energy’ [7]. There’s a reason it’s probably one of the first images you have when it comes to this topic.

And it has the evidence to back it up, too. Consistent yoga practice has been shown to lower the heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and cardiac output, as well as boost serotonin. This means it can help to ease depression and lower anxiety [7]. These results are reflected in another study that looked at using yoga as a direct mental disorder treatment, whereby greater reductions in depressive symptoms were associated with a higher frequency of yoga sessions per week [8]. As a result, yoga firmly takes its place as one of the best exercises for mental health. 

Let us know which exercise has benefited your mental health by tagging us via @bulk, we’d love to hear your inspiring stories. If you do experience problems with anxiety, depression or any other mental illness, contact your GP. You can also find help from experts at Mind

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