The 4 Best Workouts for Mental Health, According to Science

As much as squeezing workouts into your busy schedule can feel like a hassle, it’s super important to get your body moving. Not just for the physical benefits—exercise can also play a huge role in supporting a healthy mind. According to Barbara Nosal, Ph.D., chief clinical officer at Newport Academy, 30 minutes or more of daily exercise “increases the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to the regulation of mood and social behavior, as well as sleep, appetite and memory, all of which contribute to a balanced mind and body.” Sounds great to us. Read on for the four best workouts for mental health (yes, really, they're scientifically proven to boost your mood).

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1. Hiking

Walking is good for your mental health, period. In a 2013 study at Harvard University, participants who walked briskly for about 35 minutes a day five times a week improved symptoms of mild to moderate depression. For even more mood-boosting potential, try walking or hiking in a verdant area (read: one with lots of trees and greenery). Why? Research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that even looking at photos of green spaces has health benefits—most notably, stress reduction. In the study, a group of university students were shown photos on a computer screen. Half saw a photo of an urban landscape with tall buildings and parked cars. The other half saw a photo of an empty path surrounded by trees. Immediately after, the subjects completed a series of increasingly difficult math problems. Researchers found that the students who had been shown the green space had lower heart rates and were better equipped to deal with the stress of the test. If those are the mental benefits you can reap by just gazing at nature, think about how you’ll feel when you’re actually in it.

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2. Dance Cardio

In addition to improving cardiovascular health, balance and strength—and being a hell of a lot of fun—rocking out (in a dance cardio class or just with friends at the bar on a Saturday night) can improve your mental health. According to a 2015 study published in PLOS One, dancing can decrease anxiety, increase self-esteem and improve psychological well-being. And did we mention the fun part?

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3. Weight Lifting

It turns out that getting stronger physically can mean getting stronger mentally too. A 2018 review of dozens of studies on strength and resistance training published in JAMA Psychology found that lifting weights consistently reduced the symptoms of depression and even minimized a person’s risk of feeling depressed in the future. Interestingly, the amount of weight training didn’t seem to matter. The mental health benefits essentially were the same, whether people went to the gym twice a week or five times a week and whether they were completing lots of repetitions of each exercise or only a few. Because lifting weights incorrectly can be dangerous, it’s best to check in with a professional for pointers about form before starting a program.

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4. Yoga

No surprise here, but yoga is a fabulous option for boosting mood and decreasing stress levels. Harvard Medical School’s Stress Resource Center notes that yoga appears to modulate stress response systems by reducing perceived stress and anxiety: “This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal—for example, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure and easing respiration.” There’s also evidence that yoga can help increase heart rate variability, “an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly.” From ashtanga to vinyasa, find out which type of yoga best suits you here.

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