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We often hear that exercise is beneficial for mental health, and this is true in a variety of ways. In fact, the NHS considers exercise a treatment for depression, recommending exercise 3 times a week, lasting about 45 minutes to an hour, for 10 to 14 weeks.
Additionally, exercise is beneficial for anxiety. Exercise helps by increasing the availability of anti-anxiety neurochemicals, diverting your attention away from what is making you anxious, and providing greater amygdala control (a part of the brain that is responsible for our emotional reactions).
But since there are many forms of exercise, which provides the greatest benefit?
There is something called “The Three Pillars of Exercise,” which includes cardio/aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching. All three of which, when done in combination, are best for improving mental health.
With that said, I’ll be sharing with you my best exercise routine for mental health that includes all three components so that you can improve your mental health through exercise, too.
Since sticking to this routine consistently, I’ve felt an improvement in the daily impact of my anxiety and depression symptoms. Keep in mind I do this routine every other day, so 3-4 times per week.
Exercise will always be an excellent addition to a proper self-care routine!
This post is all about the best exercise for mental health
Step 1: Strength Training (No Equipment Necessary)
While there is no particular order you must follow this routine in (though, I advise against stretching first, as your muscles are not warmed up), I like to start off with strength training as it gets my body properly warmed up for more intensive exercise like cardio, without over-exerting myself.
I do not use any equipment (but you can if you’d like!) and follow YouTube videos for my strength exercises. The muscle groups I focus on each strength training session include abs, arms, glutes, and calves. I choose these because they are necessary to focus on as a dancer, and also because I prefer to tone those areas of my body.
Since many workout videos are about ten minutes long, I usually do not do the full ten minutes so that I have enough time to focus on each muscle group.
Here are my go-to YouTube videos for each muscle group if you’re interested!
- Abs: https://youtu.be/AnYl6Nk9GOA
- Arms: https://youtu.be/RVTfIfox9EY
- Glutes: https://youtu.be/mcs6XLX8H_0
- Calves: https://youtu.be/kDmiG3aBAJk
Step 2: Stretching for Mental Health
As I mentioned earlier, I am a dancer, so my stretch routine is geared towards increasing my flexibility through a greater range of motion than the average person would need. However, even simple basic stretching is enough to help improve your mental health.
Here is a simplified version of the stretches I do as part of my routine (make sure to stretch on both sides!):
Straight Leg Lunge
- Start standing upright with both feet together
- Then, slide one foot out in front of the other
- While keeping both legs straight, slowly bend over until you feel a stretch in the hamstring of the front leg
- If you cannot make it as far as the woman in the photo, try placing your hands on your front thigh and slowly walk your hands down your leg for a deeper stretch
- This stretches: hamstrings
- Step one foot forward and place your hands on the floor, coming to a low lunge
- You can either keep your back leg up as pictured, or drop your knee to the floor.
- If keeping your hands on the floor is difficult, you can leverage them on your front thigh instead
- This stretches: hips
- Start off kneeling, then put one leg out in front of you
- While keeping your weight on the back knee, bend your upper body forward onto the front leg. It is okay if you don’t make it as far as the photo!
- If you cannot make it down to the floor, you can always place your hands on the front thigh
- This stretches: hamstrings
- Sit with one knee bent in front of you, the other extended straight behind you
- Make sure to keep your back hip facing down toward the floor
- If this feels difficult, inch your front foot closer in toward your pelvis
- This stretches: hips and outer glutes
- While sitting on the floor, spread your legs a comfortable distance apart
- Place your arms out in front of you and bend the upper body forward
- Keep your feet pointed up towards the sky, do not let them roll forward
- You can adjust the distance of your legs apart or the distance you are bending forward to adjust the intensity of the stretch
- This stretches: inner thighs and hips
Step 3: Cardio/Aerobic Exercise for Mental Health
Cardio can definitely be the most challenging part of an exercise routine to feel motivated about. Especially if you are unsure if you’re going “hard” enough to make an impact.
Getting a fitness tracker is something that’s motivated me tremendously to stay on a schedule. For Christmas, I got the Fitbit Charge 4 (one of the most accurate trackers of the Fitbit line) and getting to see my results in terms of clear stats has pushed me to give it my all each time I workout.
If you’re the type of person that is motivated by seeing stats, I highly recommend investing in a Fitbit!
Cardio is especially excellent for releasing endorphins, which you should read more about in my article on Happy Brain Chemicals: What They Are and How to Hack Them.
For cardio, it is super important to do something you actually enjoy. Doing strenuous activity in something you don’t enjoy will not motivate you to stay consistent at all. If you’re like me and you hate running with a passion, it is not worth it to force yourself to run.
I take a 45 minute online dance class every other day for my cardio (sometimes more than just one class, if I’m really feeling it) but there are SO many options!
Here is a good list to get you started:
- Brisk walking
- Running or jogging
- Sports like soccer, basketball, volleyball
- Martial arts
- Cardio workouts on YouTube
Struggling with anxiety? You should grab my (free!) anxiety tracker below!
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While there’s no single perfect exercise routine that will work for everyone, this routine has certainly helped me with both my mental and physical health. I highly recommend giving it a try, or at least a variation of it if it feels like a lot. You can even try splitting up strength, stretching, and cardio on different days.
I always feel more productive, calm, and happy after I finish this routine and I hope the same for you!