Have you ever stopped to consider how your daily physical activities could profoundly impact your mental health? This complex relationship might hold more influence over your well-being than you realize.

You see, regular exercise, a powerful tool for enhancing physical health, also wields significant influence on mental well-being.

This interplay extends far beyond the realms of increased fitness levels and weight loss; it delves into the psychological realm, offering a natural remedy for managing feelings of anxiety and depression.

The transformative power of exercises, whether a brisk aerobic routine or a mindful yoga session, lies in their ability to foster a positive outlook on life.

Here, we explore how engaging in physical activity can unlock a happier, more balanced mental state, transcending the traditional bounds of physical exercise.

Understanding the Science

Research, including studies from esteemed institutions like Stanford University, illuminates the profound impact of regular exercise on mental health.

Engaging in physical activity, be it aerobic exercise, strength training, or even moderate exercise, triggers a cascade of psychological benefits.

Aerobic activities, known for elevating heart rates, are particularly effective in mitigating symptoms of depression and anxiety, enhancing overall mental health.

On the other hand, strength training not only bolsters physical condition but also contributes to mental resilience and a positive mental outlook.

Moderate exercises, accessible to a wide range of fitness levels, offer a balanced approach to maintaining mental clarity and reducing stress levels.

The science linking the benefits of exercise to mental well-being is just one facet of a larger picture. As we explore how physical activity positively influences our mental state, it becomes clear that this is part of a broader journey toward holistic health.

This journey is about finding a balance, where physical health harmonizes with mental acuity and emotional depth!

6 Exercises for Mental Health

Tailoring exercise routines to individual preferences and fitness levels is key to sustaining a regular practice.

Here are some specific exercises beyond aerobics, focusing on their mental health benefits:

1. Yoga

  • Benefits: Enhances mindfulness, reduces stress, and can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Tailoring: Ranges from gentle forms like Hatha for beginners to more intense styles like Vinyasa for those seeking a challenge.
  • Activity Overview: A versatile practice involving various postures and breathing techniques, typically performed in studios, gyms, or at home.

2. Tai Chi

  • Benefits: Combines gentle physical exercise and mindfulness. Reduces stress, improves mood, and is beneficial for emotional balance.
  • Tailoring: Suitable for all ages and fitness levels, with modifications available for different abilities.
  • Activity Overview: A graceful form of martial arts known for its slow movements and focus on breath, often practiced in parks or community centers.

3. Pilates

  • Benefits: Enhances mind-body connection, improves concentration, and helps in stress management.
  • Tailoring: Options range from beginner to advanced classes, with or without equipment.
  • Activity Overview: A form of low-impact exercise emphasizing core strength, posture, and flexibility, commonly done in studios or at home.

4. Swimming

  • Benefits: Low-impact exercise that reduces stress, improves mood, and is effective in lowering anxiety levels.
  • Tailoring: Can be adjusted in intensity and duration to suit different fitness levels.
  • Activity Overview: A full-body workout, ideal for cardiovascular health, often performed in community pools, gyms, or natural water bodies.

5. Dance

  • Benefits: Boosts mood, reduces stress, and helps in managing depression. Increases serotonin levels, promoting happiness.
  • Tailoring: Various forms from structured ballroom to freestyle, accommodating all skill levels.
  • Activity Overview: A rhythmic physical activity that can be practiced in dance studios, community halls, or even at home.

6. Cycling

A Man and Woman Cycling

  • Benefits: Increases endorphin release, enhancing mood. Great for reducing anxiety and stress.
  • Tailoring: Ranges from leisurely rides to intense cycling sessions, suitable for different fitness preferences.
  • Activity Overview: A versatile form of exercise, from urban cycling to mountain biking, often enjoyed on trails, roads, or cycling paths.

Each of these exercises offers unique mental health benefits and can be adapted to suit varying levels of fitness and personal preferences, making them accessible and enjoyable for everyone.

Overcoming Barriers to Exercise

Navigating the roadblocks on the path to regular exercise is essential for tapping into its mental health advantages. Let's delve into specific strategies for overcoming these hurdles:

1. Lack of Time

The common dilemma of needing more time for exercise can be tackled by weaving physical activities into your daily routine.

Quick, effective workouts, such as a brief session of high-intensity interval training or a brisk walk, can fit into a busy schedule.

One busy C-suite executive we know rides her bike to work. Not only does it give her time to think, but she arrives at work with a clear head. And riding home after a busy day makes it easier to mentally leave any job stress at the office.

2. Low Motivation or Lack of Equipment

Unmotivated young man laying on a rug while doing exercises

Building motivation can be challenging, yet setting clear, achievable goals and tracking progress can be a great motivator.

It can be so satisfying to do something as simple as ticking your daily exercise goal or crossing it off your “to-do” list when you’ve finished.

Group activities or classes can also provide the necessary encouragement and accountability.

You might not feel like exercising, but knowing someone is there waiting for you can be a huge motivator. You don’t want to let them down, so you’ll make that extra little bit of effort to be there.

Also, the absence of equipment or gym access isn't an actual barrier. Engaging in bodyweight exercises or outdoor activities like running requires no equipment and can be equally effective!

We’ve seen weights made out of old plastic milk bottles filled with water and sand. Or if you’re handy with a hammer, you can even build yourself a very effective weight training space.

Gardening is another way of getting exercise without needing a lot of equipment. And working with nature brings its own mental health benefits. It can be so satisfying to grow some of the food you eat or to watch seeds you’ve planted turn into beautiful flowers.

3. Feeling Overwhelmed

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the thought of starting to exercise regularly, it's important to acknowledge that feeling and understand that it's a common part of starting something new.

Try breaking down your fitness goals into smaller, more attainable steps. For instance, start with a daily 10-minute walk, then gradually increase the duration or intensity as you become more comfortable.

The last thing you want to do is to do too much too soon. It’s easy to overdo it without meaning to. But you can avoid sore muscles or even injury, by easing into your new exercise routine and building up to the level you want bit by bit.

Imagine a teacher who felt daunted by the prospect of regular exercise. They ingeniously transformed their lunch breaks into campus ‘walkabouts.' What began as short, 10-minute strolls evolved into 20-minute adventures, and soon, light jogs became a part of their routine.

This gradual change not only jump-started their journey to fitness but also turned into a refreshing escape that uplift their spirits and brought new energy to their teaching.

Finally, it's always helpful to remind yourself why you started this journey. Whether it's for mental clarity, physical health, or emotional well-being, keeping your end goal in mind can be a powerful motivator.

4. Mental Blocks

Understanding the link between physical activity and mental health can help overcome mental barriers.

Knowing that even short, simple types of physical activity can lift your mood makes it easier to get past that “I don’t feel like exercising” mind block. The same goes for being aware that tensing all your muscles for 60 seconds or doing a quick dance or some shadow boxing is going to reduce feelings of stress.

When you know that doing something short and simple is going to quickly make you feel better, you’re much more likely to do it.

Also, incorporating mindfulness and exercises for mental agility can be beneficial in overcoming mental blocks and enhancing emotional resilience.

Mindfulness or being mindful can take practice. It’s not always easy to hush our thoughts and simply focus on our breathing or what’s happening around us. But it’s a powerful technique for learning to be “in the moment.”

And if, in that moment, you don’t “feel” like exercising, then you can take that time to recognise your feelings. Once you’re recognised and acknowledged how you’re feeling, then you can deliberately think about all the good things you’ll get from exercising.

One of our team uses mindfulness and the “1,2, 3, go” method to get started exercising when they don’t feel like it. Once they’ve recognised that “I don’t want to, but I know it’s good for me” feeling, they simply think to themselves, “I’m going to count to three. And when I get to 3, I’m going to start my exercise. 1. 2. 3. Go!”

And it works!

5. Physical Limitations

For those with physical limitations or health concerns, consulting a health professional to tailor an exercise plan is crucial.

They will help you find exercises that are suitable for your situation and needs.

Low-impact exercises like swimming or yoga can be excellent starting points. Remember, adapting exercises to your unique situation can create a pathway to improved health without compromising your safety or comfort.

Consider someone with a recent knee surgery, previously a keen hike. their solution? Swap hiking trails for pool lanes! Guided by a doctor, some people often embrace swimming, finding it as gentle on their joints as it is invigorating for their spirit.

It's a splashy reminder: fitness journeys are as unique as the individuals embarking on them. Your journey towards fitness, though possibly different, is equally valid and important.

Tips for Getting Started

As you get ready to start a new exercise routine, it's important to craft a plan that's both effective and enjoyable.

This initial phase is about laying down a foundation that not only aligns with your fitness goals but also fits seamlessly into your lifestyle. Here's how you can begin this journey with confidence and create a routine that sticks:

1. Set Achievable Goals

Initiating your exercise journey with attainable and clear objectives can provide a strong foundation.

Start with simple, realistic targets, like incorporating a 15-minute walk into your daily routine or performing a set of basic stretches each morning. These small goals pave the way for bigger achievements and help maintain motivation.

2. Find Enjoyable Activities

Diverse group of women in a dance fitness exercise class

The key to a sustainable exercise routine is finding joy in the activities you choose.

Whether it's a dance class, hiking, or a sport, selecting exercises that you look forward to makes it easier to stick to your routine. Enjoyment is a powerful motivator in maintaining regular physical activity.

3. Gradual Progression

Ease into your exercise regimen to prevent burnout or injury.

Start with lower-intensity workouts and gradually increase the duration and intensity as your fitness improves. This approach helps build endurance and strength at a comfortable pace.

4. Incorporate Variety

A diverse exercise routine can keep things interesting and work different muscle groups.

Mix aerobic exercises like jogging or swimming with strength training and flexibility workouts such as yoga or pilates. This variety not only enhances physical health but also keeps you mentally engaged.

5. Consistent Scheduling

Make exercise a regular part of your schedule. Consistency is key to building a long-lasting exercise habit.

By treating workout times as important appointments, you reinforce the habit and ensure that you're dedicating enough time to your physical health.

6. Listen to Your Body

Paying attention to your body’s signals is crucial. Ensure that you're not over-exerting yourself and rest when needed.

Balance is important in an exercise routine, so include adequate recovery time to prevent injuries and maintain overall health.

Final Words

As we've explored, the link between exercise and mental health is undeniable. Regular physical activity, from yoga to strength training, plays a crucial role in enhancing our mental well-being, alleviating symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.

It fosters a positive outlook on life, enhancing not just our physical health but our emotional and mental landscapes as well.

Now, as you stand at the crossroads, ready to embrace a more active lifestyle, remember that every step counts.

Your journey towards a happier, healthier life begins with that first step of physical activity. Embrace it with confidence, knowing the profound benefits it brings to every aspect of your being.

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After working with people from all walks of life and all abilities, we can say with certainty that there comes a time in everyone's life when the decisions we make impact other people.  That means that …

  • It can be confusing know which decision to make
  • We can be fearful that we'll make the wrong decisions
  • Sometimes the right decision for us is the wrong decision for people we love
  • It can take a lot of wisdom to figure out what to do


Katrina Streatfeild

I'm Katrina Streatfeild, Clinical Psychologist, mother, businesswoman and leader.

Decision making can be really tough, especially when your ability to think through issues and impacts is clouded or limited by past experiences in your life.

I bring almost 25 years of experience across the spectrum of child and adult assessment and intervention for trauma and mental health disorders, child & family work and supervision of psychology trainees and registrars.

I'm interested in anxiety, adjustment, stress & burnout, trauma,  PTSD, Complex PTSD, child and parent work, women's mental health, complex Mental Health Disorders, EMDR and supervision and mentoring of provisional and registrar (Clinical and Counselling) Psychologists.

 I completed my Masters of Psychology at Monash University and  I'm currently completing my PhD (ADF Veteran Parenting in the context of PTSD, CPTSD and Moral Injury)  at the University of Newcastle.

Trudy Rankin - a middle-aged woman in a red jacket

I'm Trudy Rankin, CEO of West Island Digital and the creator of Online Business Lift-off, digital strategist, wife, mother. 

Over the years I've helped many people make hard decisions.  Mostly by listening and asking tough questions.

But also by refining and improving a technique I learned years ago.

This technique uses a step-by-step process to really help you dig into what this hard decision means … to you and those you care about … and then takes the emotion (and fear) out of that decision making process, so you can concentrate on what matters.

My main focus is on business.  I love helping people use frameworks, segmentation quizzes and diagnostic tools to lift their business to the next level … and make a bigger impact on customer outcomes.

I have a Master of Commerce Degree from University of Auckland and I'm a certified project Manager through PMI (Project Management Institute).