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Exercise provides a powerful boost to mental health

Are you feeling more stressed or blue since the pandemic? If so, you’re not alone.

Depression among U.S. adults skyrocketed from 8.5% before the pandemic to 32.8% in 2021, affecting 1 in every 3 adults, according to a public health study by Boston University. And, two in three American adults (67%) say they experienced increased stress levels over the course of the pandemic, reports the American Psychological Association in a press release on stress.

We’ve been through a lot. Even watching the news is enough to stress anyone out these days.

What if I told you that there is something that may help you feel better, right now? It’s simple, free and doesn’t involve pharmaceuticals or alcohol and their side effects. It’s a prescription to exercise.

We all know exercise is good for us physically. But exercise provides an incredible boost for our mental and emotional wellbeing, too.

Before I became a regular exerciser, I didn’t know about this powerful mind-body connection and the science behind it. After I started power walking every day, I quickly realized that exercise made me feel much better emotionally as well as physically. This became a primary reason I kept going with exercise instead of giving up. I didn’t want to go back to the way I used to feel. Exercise reduced my intrusive thoughts, and over time it even helped eliminate the social anxiety I was burdened with for so long.

Even now I notice a big change in how I feel, my thoughts and emotions, and how I act towards myself and others if I skip a day or put off a workout. That’s one reason I like exercising in the morning. It instantly puts me in a better mood and even helps me think more clearly. Plus, of course, it helps me feel good physically as well. That’s a great way to start the day.

No one is claiming that regular physical activity cures everything and everyone, and that’s not what the research says. But, what we do know is compelling. The mental health benefits of exercise are powerful. Why not give exercise a chance and see if it helps you, too?

The latest research confirms that exercise works wonders

We all know that exercise can improve your physical condition, reduce the risk of heart disease and help you reach your weight loss goals. But exercise also causes positive physiological changes in your body that directly affect and benefit your brain.

While this has been well-established science for many years, a slew of recent studies have confirmed just how good exercise is for mental and emotional wellbeing. Here are just a few:

  • Exercising for 30 minutes daily may ease depression symptoms and amplify the benefits of therapy, according to two recent studies from Iowa State University. These studies, reported by Futurity, found that symptoms of depression were reduced for at least 75 minutes post-workout.
  • Even small amounts of exercise could prevent cases of depression, according to a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry that analyzed data from more than 191,000 people. In this study, the recommended exercise was two and a half hours per week of brisk walking. Adults meeting this level had a 25% lower risk of depression compared to those who did no physical activity. Even exercising at half of the recommended time lowered the risk of depression.
  • People with depression or anxiety disorder are twice as likely to get health benefits from regular exercise, found a recent study by Massachusetts General Hospital that tracked 50,000 adults, including adults with mental health problems.
  • Physical activity and exercise can prevent depression and anxiety disorders, and it has multiple beneficial effects on the physical and mental health of people with a wide range of mental health issues, reports an article published in the journal Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. They also recommended that “Exercise interventions should be incorporated to the routine care of people with mental disorders due its multiple benefits on physical and mental health outcomes.”

For more on the benefits of exercise for mental health and how it works, I recommend the book Move the Body, Heal the Mind by neuroscientist Jennifer Heisz, Ph.D.

How much exercise should you get?

The current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans published by the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion advises that adults get at least 150 to 300 minutes weekly of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, or 75 to 150 minutes weekly of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, or an equivalent combination of both, plus muscle-strengthening activities on at least two days a week.

To meet the minimum of 150 minutes weekly of moderate intensity exercise (the kind that gets your heart rate up about 50% higher than at rest), that’s 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

But keep in mind that any amount of physical exercise you do is beneficial. You can always start with less and work your way up to more.

Even if you can’t commit to 30 minutes a day, exercise of any intensity for as little as one hour per week may help to prevent depression, according to findings published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. In Heisz’s book, both the high- and low-frequency exercisers studied benefitted in reducing the severity of depression symptoms.

Clearly, our bodies and minds need us to exercise and will respond favorably to whatever we can do, even small amounts. The important thing is that you’re making movement a part of your daily routine.

For many people, the thought of having to do 30 to 60 minutes of an exercise program feels like drudgery, so they avoid it. Try starting with 5 to 10 minutes, or whatever you can do. Another strategy is to sprinkle in additional movement throughout your day. Continue to gradually build in more time each week as your fitness level, confidence and sense of wellbeing improves. If you’re exercising every day, it will!

Exercises that benefit mental and physical health

The first thing you should ask yourself is, “What exercise might I enjoy doing?” It’s a lot easier to stick with something you like. Think of exercise as movement – all purposeful movement counts, not just calisthenics. Any type of movement can help get your energy levels up and stress hormones down. The best exercise is the one you can stick with, whether that’s taking a brisk walk or hitting the gym.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Any activity that gets you outdoors has an added benefit as well: Exercising in natural environments has been shown to have a positive effect on mental wellbeing.

Always seek medical care or therapy if you need it

Sometimes depression can be a barrier to exercising and finding motivation. If this is something you are struggling with, please consider seeking care.

Exercise doesn't alleviate depression for everyone, and it's not a substitute for needed medical care or therapy. If you think you may have depression or anxiety, it’s best to consult a mental health professional. Contact your primary care provider or use our Find Care tool to connect with a physician. Healthy Blue members can search for a provider near their home.

authors photo

Michelle Rogers

Michelle Rogers

Certified Personal Trainer

Michelle Rogers is a certified personal trainer who specializes in healthy living for adults over 40. She leads classes and workshops online at Reachable Fitness, her virtual exercise studio. Find out more at and connect on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @MRhealthyliving.

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