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6 Ways to Use Exercise to Improve Your Mental and Emotional Health

Follow these six guidelines to improve your mental and emotional health through exercise.

Self-Care & Mental Health

ace fitness logoThe mission of theAmerican Council on Exercise (ACE)is to get people moving.

By Kelsey Graham

Everyone knows that exercise improves physical health. You've likely heard of its metabolism-boosting, blood sugar-lowering and cardioprotective benefits. But exercise's powerful depression- and anxiety-reducing effect are discussed less often.

Although there are many explanations for why exercise helps reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, researchers aren't completely sure which theory is correct. Some of the hypotheses include:

  • Increased neurotransmitter activity
  • Improved self-esteem (which is commonly low in those who suffer from depression)
  • Release of stored energy, which can alleviate anxiety
  • Serves as a distraction or coping mechanism
  • Creates opportunities for social interaction

Regardless of the reason behind exercise's potent effect on anxiety and depression, what's important is that it works.

Follow these six guidelines to improve your mental and emotional health through exercise.

1. Get Outside

Moving in Mother Nature is superior to exercising indoors for enhancing mental health. As little as five minutes of outdoor exercise can improve self-esteem and mood (Barton and Petty, 2010). Further, outdoor exercise can lower tension and anger, and allow for the absorption of vitamin D, which is another important factor for managing depressive symptoms.

2. Find a Community

Exercising with friends is a mental health one-two punch. It allows for the positive benefits of exercise and helps us connect with others. It also creates opportunities for social support, which is vital to good mental health (Lakey and Orehek, 2011).

3. Talk, Don't Sing

Exercise doesn't have to be strenuous to produce mental health benefits. In fact, moderate-intensity exercise is most beneficial in reducing symptoms of depression (Craft and Perna, 2004). To ensure you're exercising at a moderate intensity, use the talk test. If you can talk in short sentences, but can't sing a song, you're likely at the right intensity.

4. Create Functional Goals

While weight-loss and physique improvements are useful goals, they're often frustrating and time-consuming propositions. Further, they tell you little about your ability or quality as a person. Functional goals, however, can be more meaningful, tangible and timely. An example of a functional goal might be completing your first pull-up, running a half-marathon or increasing your squat weight. All of these goals are likely to enhance self-efficacy—your sense of your ability as an exerciser—which can improve your overall self-concept and mood.

5. Avoid Situations That Leave You Feeling Less Than

The world of health and fitness can by hyper-competitive and unrealistic. Instagram trainers sport washboard abs and perfect hair, and gyms and studios can have appearance-based social norms that heighten feelings of insecurity. For some, these social media outlets and fitness settings inspire hard work and dedication. For others, they lead to negative comparisons, self-doubt and shame. If your online or in-person fitness environment doesn't leave you feeling positive and uplifted, it may be time to selectively unfollow or choose a new workout locale. There are plenty of body-positive, health-focused, inclusive individuals and organizations that you can follow and support instead.

6. Thank Your Body for the Gift of Movement

An attitude of gratitude is proven to enhance mental well-being, and this extends to your exercise practice as well. When you finish a bout of physical activity, take a few minutes to reflect on and appreciate your body's ability to move. Thank your body for the workout it carried you through and consider your good fortune in being able to express your humanity through movement.

If you struggle with symptoms of anxiety or depression, incorporate daily movement into your life, focusing on inclusive environments, outdoor workouts, moderate intensity and functional goals. You'll quickly find that your exercise sessions do as much for your mental and emotional well-being as they do for your physical health.


Barton, J. and Pretty J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Science & Technology, 15, 44, 10, 3947–3955.

Craft, L.L. and Perna, F.M. (2004). The benefits of exercise for the clinically depressed. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 6, 3, 104–111.

Lakey, B. and Orehek, E. (2011). Relational regulation theory: A new approach to explain the link between perceived social support and mental health. Psychological Review, 118, 3, 482–495.

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