4 ways to boost the mental health benefits of your next workout

by Kaiser Permanente |
Smiling group of friends hiking outside

Many people exercise to improve their physical health — but what’s good for the body is good for the mind.

Exercise is a natural way to improve your mental health. It can help you:

  • Ease depression and anxiety
  • Deal with stress
  • Sleep better

In fact, people who exercise have 43% fewer poor mental health days than people who don’t.1 And many people are in better moods right after exercising.2

Here are some simple things you can do to boost the mind-body benefits of exercise.

Run or walk mindfully

Next time you’re walking or running, add mindfulness to the mix. Focus on your movement and the present moment. Instead of listening to music, listen to the sound of each step or your breathing. And when your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath and body. One study showed that mindfulness with exercise reduces symptoms of depression by 40%.3

Take it outside

When you’re feeling stressed or thinking negative thoughts, head for the hills. Levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, drop by more than 20% after people spend 20 to 30 minutes in nature.4 Research also shows that walking in nature can help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.5

Focus on your breath

Yoga helps you focus on deep breathing, which can calm the mind and keep stress away. It’s also known to help people feel more peaceful and positive and sleep better. Like exercising outdoors, yoga also helps with depression and anxiety. Most people feel better right after a yoga session — and the more yoga people do, the more they feel better in the long run.6

Join a team

Exercise is even better in groups. People who play team sports have the highest number of good mental health days.7 That’s because team sports like soccer, basketball, and baseball are both physical and social activity. These 2 things can work wonders for the mind, body, and spirit. Social connection is important to good mental health — people with strong social ties tend to be happier and healthier. And the quality time spent with others can be just as helpful as exercise, especially for people living with a mental health condition.

Now that you know how moving your body can benefit your mind, you have even more reasons to make exercise part of your healthy routine. You can also find more mental health resources, including self-care apps to help with stress, sleep, anxiety, and more. Some of our apps even have mindful movement lessons and walking meditations to help jump-start your exercise routine.

Sammi R. Chekroud et al., "Association Between Physical Exercise and Mental Health in 1.2 Million Individuals in the USA Between 2011 and 2015: A Cross-Sectional Study," Lancet Psychiatry, August 8, 2018.

Laura Mandolesi et al., "Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits," Frontiers in Psychology, April 27, 2018.

See note 1.

MaryCarol R. Hunter et al., "Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers," Frontiers in Psychology, April 4, 2019.

Kirsten Weir, "Nurtured by Nature," American Psychological Association, April 1, 2020.

Tammy M. Scott et al., "Psychological Function, Iyengar Yoga, and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study," Journal of Psychiatric Practice, November 2019.

See note 1.