Your body plays a bigger role in your mental health than you might think.

By Kathleen Felton
Updated June 01, 2020
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If you suffer from depression or anxiety, you know that in some specific moments, the last thing you may feel like doing is moving your body—but exercise can play a key role in managing your symptoms, thanks to the powerful link between your physical and mental health.

"We know that the old divisions of body and mind are false," says Ben Michaelis, PhD, an evolutionary clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy. "The body is the mind and the mind is the body. When you take care of yourself, you are helping the whole system."

While you should always consult with your doctor about your treatment options (and before you start an exercise program of any kind), says Michaelis, the US Department of Health and Human Services, says adults should get a standard amount of weekly exercise. The agency suggests 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity exercise a week. When that exercise ramps up to vigorous-intensity exercise, those recommendations lower to 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes).

Clearly, it's important to incorporate exercise of any kind, into your routine, but there are also some exercises that may aid mental health better than others. Research suggests that these three activities in particular could help alleviate symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Running

There's a reason you've heard time and again that running is one of the best exercises for your health: It can torch calories, reduce food cravings, and lower your risk for heart disease. Running for just five minutes a day might even help you live longer, according to 2014 research.

But it's also been shown to improve mood in a variety of ways, Michaelis says. "Running causes lasting changes in our 'feel good' neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, both during and after exercise," he explains. What's more: The repetitive motions of running appear to have a meditative effect on the brain.

The mental benefits can be especially powerful for people who suffer from depression. In a 2006 review published in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, researchers found evidence that exercise can work in a similar way to antidepressants, alleviating major depressive disorder by promoting the growth of new neurons in the brain.

Also good: Running may make it easier for you to fall asleep at night, says Michaelis, which benefits your overall mental health by improving memory, lowering stress levels, and protecting against depression.

Hiking in the woods

To maximize the mental health benefits of your sweat session, consider hitting the trails. "Nature has a calming effect on the mind," says Michaelis. "There is evidence that being around plants, trees, and especially decaying trees can help reduce anxiety because these plants emit chemicals to slow down the process of their decay, which appears to slow us down as well."

In a 2009 study published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, Japanese researchers sent participants to either a wooded or urban area. They found that those who'd taken a 20-minute "forest bath" (a.k.a. a walk in the woods), had lower stress hormone levels than the participants who had been in a city.

Newer research seems to reinforce the idea that being immersed in nature is good for your mental health. A 2015 study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, for example, discovered that when young adults went on a 50-minute nature walk, they felt less anxious and had improved memory function.

Yoga

In a small 2007 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, all of the study's participants who had taken yoga classes experienced "significant" reductions in depression, anger, anxiety, and neurotic symptoms. The findings led the researcher to recommend yoga as a complementary treatment for depression.

In 2012, another group of researchers conducted a review of trials, published in Alternative Medicine Review, examined the effects of yoga on anxiety and stress. In 25 out of the 35 studies, subjects experienced a significant decrease in stress and anxiety symptoms after starting yoga.

"The great thing about yoga is that besides the stretching and core strengthening, there is a tremendous focus on breathing, which helps to slow down and calm the mind," says Michaelis. In fact, experts believe that yoga's focus on the breath is especially beneficial for mental health, because it's difficult to feel anxiety when you're focused on calmly breathing deeply, he says.

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