Exercising can be a powerful tool for maintaining and improving mental health—just ask science. A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, one of the largest studies on the topic to date, found regular exercise to be effective in treating symptoms of depression and anxiety.
But not all workouts are created equal, and some will be more beneficial to your mental health than others. Plus, it’s possible for exercise to have negative mental health impacts, especially when related to exercise addiction.
So how do you ensure your workout is serving both your body and your mind? Grace Albin, a Pilates instructor and personal trainer with a passion for optimizing exercise for your mental well-being, shares her best mental health exercise tips below.
5 mental health exercise tips a trainer swears by
Tip 1: Find what works for you
Reaping the most mental health benefits from your workout means exercising consistently. Finding an activity that you genuinely enjoy can help with this, says Albin, and sports psychologist agree. It can increase your intrinsic motivation, or doing something for the internal satisfaction of doing it, rather than the external validation or reward, Jamie Shapiro, an associate professor of sports psychology at Denver University, previously told Well+Good.
When you find the right form of movement, you’ll know, Albin says. It’ll be something that makes you feel good and that you can look forward to, rather than “another chore on the to-do list,” she says. “It should be a thing that you get to do, not that you have to do.”
One workout may not be your go-to mental health boost forever—if you feel yourself starting to get bored or feel unsatisfied, switch things up, says Albin. Just don’t overthink it, and go with your gut: “Overthinking it will actually backfire on you,” she says. “Exercising is the time to be intuitive rather than overly mental.”
In general, science shows that low-stress workouts tend to be best for your mental health, but again, that’ll vary from person to person. The goal is to find something that lights you up without leaving your feeling too amped up in the end.
Tip 2: Be selfish about your workout time
For your workout to benefit your mind, as well as your body, make sure it is truly your time. Resist the temptation to make it a multitasking event, says Albin, whether that’s walking the dog or pushing the stroller as you run, or listening to a work-related podcast. Trying to do the most can undermine the point of exercising for your mental health by increasing the stress level of the workout. “Doing exercise can have great stress management implications,” Darren Lumbard, a psychologist who works with athletes at Atlantic Sports Health, previously told Well+Good. “But if we’re getting stressed [multitasking], we counter the positive effects of exercise.”
Instead, Albin says, your workout time should be multisensory, “whether you’re listening to the playlist you really like, or walking in a park that you love to see,” says Albin. “I promise you’re going to have so much extra energy that day that you’ll feel like you gained an hour of productivity.”
Proponents of multisensory workouts say their ability to help your mind stay present deepen the mental (and physical) health benefits. “Research has shown that if our minds are focused on the present moment and we’re paying attention to our senses, we tend to perform at a higher level,” Justin Anderson, a sports psychologist and founder of Premier Sport Psychology in Minneapolis, previously told Well+Good. “You have a certain video, song, or energy being transmitted—that’s an emotion that helps drive energy to harness and focus on the drill at hand.”
Don’t sacrifice what you need out of your workout for social reasons either, says Albin—maybe you feel pressure to take Zumba dance workouts because that’s what your friend does, for instance, but what you’d really rather do is yoga. “You got the physical benefits, because you went to a class and moved your body, but you didn’t get the mental benefits, because that wasn’t the exercise that your body was telling you to do that day,” says Albin.
Tip 3: Create a designated exercise space
If you’re working out at home, create a space (even if it’s small!) that will help you be mentally present. “For some people, it’s that dark, traditional spin class atmosphere with the electronic music,” says Albin. “And for some people, it’s super bright, lots of sunlight, you’ve got your candle, and it’s like a spa.” Small choices like lighting and music can set the tone for a workout that rejuvenates both mind and body.
Tip 4: Keep it simple
But that doesn’t mean you have to spend lots of money on fancy fitness equipment or products. In fact, Albin says, doing so can mitigate the mental health benefits of working out for some people, since “you’re stressing yourself out because now you’re going to be paying for this thing for the next few months of your credit card statement.”
As long as it won’t bring guilt or stress into your workout, Albin acknowledges that having a cute new outfit, or resistance bands that match your exercise mat, can be motivating, and make the experience more fun. “But you absolutely do not need to buy anything special in order to do this,” she says. “That’s one of the barriers for people who think they don’t have the money, or don’t have the time—you don’t even need a full hour.”
Tip 5: Leave the competitive mindset for another day
For the last of her mental health exercise tips, Albin shares that while there’s a time and a place for competitive workouts, she believes they aren’t as beneficial for mental health. If you love racing your friends on your Peloton or trying to stay in the orange zone at Orangetheory, great, says Albin—just be sure you have at least one workout a week that’s just about enjoying moving your body.