How Much Exercise Do You Need to Improve Your Mental Health?

Angela Cabotaje Fact Checked
Stephen Brashear

Here’s a no-brainer: Exercise is good for you.

Extensive research shows that physical activity positively benefits not only our bodies but also our mental health.

That’s why going for a walk in the middle of the workday can help you feel re-energized and refocused, and why you’re raring to go after a morning jog. It’s also why exercise is prescribed to help treat depression, anxiety and even eating disorders or substance dependencies.

In fact, a recent study of 1.2 million Americans found that those who exercised experienced 43 percent fewer days of poor mental health each month compared to those who didn’t.

But what type of exercise is best for your mental health? And how much physical activity do you need? Turns out, it’s all about finding a healthy balance that works for you.

How exercise affects your mental health

The emotional lift you feel after a great gym sesh isn’t just coincidence — it’s part of your biology.

“Exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is like Miracle-Gro for the brain. It helps the brain make stronger and faster connections,” explains Erin Gonzalez, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

On the flip side, low BDNF levels are often associated with depression and stress-related mood disorders.

When you exercise, your brain not only boosts BDNF, it also releases chemicals that increase your sense of reward, interest, enjoyment and motivation. So that runner’s high you feel is really your brain hyped up on endorphins, dopamine and other neurotransmitters.

Along with activating certain chemicals in your brain, there are additional ways physical activity benefits your mental health. Exercise encourages you to get out and interact with the world, which has positive side effects.

“Exercise helps us engage with our environment, and that gives us more opportunity to get a sense of reward from other people and from our experiences,” Gonzalez says. “That keeps us in a positive upward cycle of doing more and connecting more, and that’s going to lead to a more balanced and fulfilling life.”

Think about it: During a bike ride on the Burke-Gilman Trail, you may decide to stop and enjoy the view of Lake Union for a bit, leading to a greater sense of gratitude. And when your yoga instructor asks you to contort your body in a seemingly impossible way, it’s fun to share a grimace and sense of camaraderie with the equally appalled person next to you.

But before you start packing your calendar with CrossFit classes and marathon barre sessions, keep in mind that more exercise doesn’t necessarily mean more benefits.

How much exercise is best?

There’s a sweet spot when it comes to physical activity and the payoff for your mental health. According to the national study, you’ll see the most benefit if you exercise for 45 minutes at a time, three to five times a week.

In fact, those who exercised for more than 90-minute periods or on more than 23 days a month actually reported worse mental health than those who exercised less.

Why might that be?

“I think there is a point where the effort of physical activity becomes more of a stressor than a benefit,” Gonzalez says. “There is such a thing as getting too focused on fitness. This is when it takes the place of other activities in your life.”

Can’t join your friends for brunch as much because you have to fit in three-hour runs every weekend to train for a marathon? Getting stressed out about making it to spin class every night? These are all ways exercise can have a negative impact.

The most important thing, Gonzalez notes, is to pay attention to how exercise helps or hurts you. If you love it and feel better afterward, keep going. But if it’s continually interrupting social relationships, activities and commitments that make you happy, then it may be worth re-evaluating the balance of exercise in your life.

Although there can be such a thing as too much exercise, the study also showed that any exercise — no matter how much or how little — was better than not exercising at all.

“We know that exercise improves your heart health and has benefits for your mood and focus, even if it’s gentle stretching,” Gonzalez says. “I can’t imagine there would be reasons to not exercise, except for certain medical problems.”

The types of exercise that help the most

So does 45 minutes of swimming laps in the pool provide the same well-being boost as 45 minutes of playing pick-up soccer with friends? Not exactly.

According to the study, team sports showed the greatest mental health benefit, followed by cycling and then aerobic and gym activities.

Team sports have the advantage of providing not only physical activity but also social interactions with people who have similar interests.

“Exercising with others will put you on a positive upward spiral, where you keep getting a social reward and keep getting good feedback,” Gonzalez explains.

If those three types of exercise are too intimidating for you, though, take heart. Even gentle physical activities like walking have significant positive effects, something that’s especially beneficial as you age.

Finding the right balance for you

Sometimes the hardest part of exercising when you’re already experiencing poor mental health is getting started and continuing on a regular basis.

Gonzalez says it’s all part of being caught in an inactive cycle where you disengage from the community and your friends, making it more difficult to get yourself unstuck.

She suggests starting by setting small, achievable goals for yourself. You don’t have to aim to be the next Sue Bird when you start playing basketball, for example. Instead try to make a certain number of baskets in a row or challenge yourself with different dribbling drills.

Walking is another activity that’s easy for almost everyone to take part in. She recommends aiming to walk a certain number of steps or minutes each day, slowly upping the amount or duration each time. When you hit your end goal, treat yourself with a special reward.

“There’s evidence that just walking can help in treating depression,” Gonzalez says. “The benefits of exercise can’t be exaggerated.”

So what are you waiting for? Here’s to a healthier, happier you.