The Best Physical Activity for Improving Your Mental Health

(U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Timothy Lenzo)

Have you ever considered that the catalyst for physical, mental and emotional health is movement?

Obviously, physical fitness is not the cure-all to all health problems, including both mental and emotional issues, nor should it replace professional counseling and medical checkups. But if you are looking for the one thing that you can do to try to help yourself, it is moving more. According to the Mayo Clinic, all forms of physical activity are helpful in this quest to help improve our mental and emotional health. The biggest question now is: How much movement do you truly need to see those gains?

Well, science may offer an answer in recent studies.

Benefits of Movement for Mental Health

Physical activity (especially walking) can help with a wide range of issues, from relieving stress and improving your mood to reducing depressive and anxious symptoms and adding quality to your life. Add a social aspect to your movement, and you will have an even stronger source of mood enhancement. These can be walks with a spouse or friend, group workouts or sports like tennis.

This 2018 study of exercise and mental health in the medical journal The Lancet found:

"Individuals who exercised had 43% fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than individuals who did not exercise. All exercise types were associated with a lower mental health burden than not exercising. The largest associations were seen in social physical activities, like team sports, and group aerobic and gym activities. The ideal amount of activity seems to be 45 minutes and frequencies of three to five times per week. More exercise per day was not always better."

High- and Low-Intensity Movement for Mental Health

Higher-intensity physical activity means you put more effort into each activity you do to increase your heart rate. However, the individual definition of intensity depends on your current fitness level, abilities and what activities you prefer.

The good news is that high-intensity training works well for depression and anxiety symptoms. If you like lifting heavy weights, running, biking or swimming fast for a shorter period of time, high-intensity training is a good way to get your workouts done in that time. To make higher-intensity workouts work even better, follow up with an easy cardio cooldown and stretching with deep breathing.

Lower-intensity physical activity like walking, easy jogging, biking in the park or yoga can be just as helpful at reducing stress and depressive symptoms by helping the body metabolize the stress hormones. The release of endorphins, in turn, helps you change the nervous system from a more fight-flight response and more into the rest-digest response. Seeing an improvement in sleep, digestion and immune response is why you want to add more easy physical activity to your day. Better sleep and digestion alone will improve your health and ability to recover from daily stress.

The Right Movement for Mental Health

If you are asking what the best physical activity for you is, the answer is the one you will do regularly, several times a week. Do not feel as if you have to join a gym and start powerlifting to get stronger or sign up for a marathon to accomplish more cardio. Many people love walking and running for their exercise while others enjoy lifting weights. If you want to improve on the benefits of the time you invest in your physical and mental well-being, consider adding the activity you are not good at doing in small increments.

For the results, you may want to interfere with what you enjoy the most; consider doing cardio after lifting if you prefer to be at your best during the lifting workout. It's the same for the runner. Lift after the walk or run workouts for a short period just to build a base of strength and help the healthy aspects of the movement work together for you even more.

Consistency Is Key

The key to physical, mental and emotional health is to do something daily, versus once a week, for longer periods. Even if it is a series of 10-minute walks during work or school breaks, you can accumulate significant stress-fighting capabilities if you can build up to 45-60 minutes a day, 3-5 times a week.

Start by walking daily, even if only for 10 minutes. Mix several stretches and calisthenics (for example, sit down and stand up several times) to work your joints and muscles. Eventually, adding in regular resistance training (lifting and moving objects or yourself) for part of the day will continue to build a stronger, more durable body and mind.

If you are using physical fitness to help you reduce stress, the goal is moderation and consistency. In fact, too much physical fitness can do the opposite and add stress, pain and injury to your life. Too much is a relative term and dependent on your activity level and athletic history, but if you have a solid habit of fitness in your life and get derailed by illness or injury, you will see how quickly not training regularly negatively affects your mood and health in other areas as well.

If you want to know what is the best physical activity for your physical and mental health, the answer is "the one that is done." Find something you enjoy and do it for just minutes each day.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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