It’s Mental Health Awareness Month and the perfect opportunity to exercise for mental health—especially given the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on anxiety, depression, and overall mental wellbeing during the past year.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over 40% of U.S. adults reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition during the early stages of the pandemic, and a year later there are pronounced mental health consequences of all types.   

Fortunately, warmer weather means more opportunities to get outside and exercise, which benefits mental health. But where should you begin—especially if your emotional state itself makes it difficult to get up and get active? What does science tell us about the best simple fitness options that make a real impact? 

Why exercise for mental health? 

If the pandemic has increased feelings of depression and anxiety or otherwise affected your mental health, an exercise plan can help. Research shows that just 30 minutes of moderate exercise—such as a brisk walk—three days a week, can improve multiple aspects of your mental health, from self-esteem to cognitive function. 

Exercise is critical for maintaining a positive mood and good sleep quality. It can also boost your overall energy and stamina. Studies show that exercise works to increase the amount of endorphins your body produces. Endorphins are a group of hormones, including the “happy hormone” serotonin, that boost mood and decrease pain levels.  

Simple ways to boost mental health with fitness

Using exercise for mental health improvement doesn’t have to be intimidating. Newly emerging fitness trends and resources are making it easier to get moving and improve overall wellbeing. Consider these recommendations to start actively moving toward better mental health. 

  1. Take a 30-minute walk or jog at least three days a week. Science shows that low-intensity exercise releases neurotrophic proteins in the body that improve nerve cell connections in your brain’s hippocampus over time. The hippocampus is the portion of the brain that helps regulate mood and relieve depression. 
  2. Game-ify your fitness. Start a friendly competition, such as a 5-week squat challenge, and tag in some friends. There is evidence that exercising alongside a partner can improve your all-around performance, making it easier to boost mental health through exercise. 
  3. Join a fitness class (in-person or virtual). Ask around if any local gyms, rec centers, or Facebook groups offer any socially distanced group exercise classes. If you prefer an at-home workout, virtual providers offer countless classes, from HIIT and cardio boxing to relaxing yoga, to help keep your exercise routine exciting. Many of these introductory courses are even free.  Be sure to maintain proper form to avoid injury when doing classes online!
  4. Experiment with wearable fitness technology to stay motivated. As wearable fitness technology innovations continue to evolve can help you master workouts with a fun twist.  

Fitness you can feel good about 

As we continue to navigate the ins and outs of COVID-19 and its aftermath, it’s crucial not to neglect your mental health. Get back in a stronger headspace with fitness you can feel good about. From a simple 30-minute walk to an online yoga class, exercise is a proven method to boost your mental health and overall happiness.