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Exercise and mental health

9-minute read

Key facts

  • Exercise can benefit your mental health as well as your physical health.
  • Exercising regularly can reduce stress, help you sleep better, and aid recovery from mental illness.
  • If you are new to exercising, start slow in a setting where you feel comfortable.
  • Exercise has many benefits, not only for your physical health but also your mental health.
  • If you are new to exercise, you can start slowly and choose something you enjoy.

What are the physical health benefits of exercise?

Exercise has many benefits for your physical health. Physical activity helps reduce your risk of illnesses, such as:

Exercise can help people with illnesses and conditions such as:

Physical activity can also help you maintain a healthy weight and improve your overall health. Different exercises can help you:

Exercise can also boost your self-esteem.

What are the mental health benefits of exercise?

If you exercise regularly, it can help:

Exercise can also help reduce any feelings of loneliness and isolation, as it can create opportunities to:

  • get outside be social and interact with other people

Exercise can also improve your sleep. A good rest is important in both your physical and mental health, to:

  • improve your concentration
  • give you more energy

Daily actions to improve your mental health

Research from MindSpot has shown that regularly performing five simple daily actions can improve your mental health.

How does exercise help my mental health?

Exercise causes your brain to release 'feel good' chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that help improve your mood.

It also improves your fitness, which can help lift your mood.

Doing physical activity can also distract you from negative thought patterns.

How much exercise do I need?

Australian guidelines recommend adults do at least 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity on most or all days of the week.

Combine your exercise routine with a healthy diet and other healthy lifestyle habits.

While you exercise, you can also:

  • practice steady breathing for self-awareness
  • focus on keeping a good posture

How do I start exercising?

When starting to exercise, it's important to stay within your limits. If you are not usually active, start with simple activities like:

  • going to the shops
  • gardening
  • household chores
  • cooking

At your own pace, try to build up to doing 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day, such as:

  • bike riding
  • walking
  • swimming

If you have a pedometer or smart watch, you can also monitor your steps and set walking goals. At first, aim for around 1,000 steps a day. Eventually, try to aim for 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day.

You don't need to visit a gym to exercise. You can start exercising in a comfortable environment to build your confidence. You can exercise:

  • at home
  • outside
  • alone, with people you know, or with a class or group

Consider ways you can incorporate exercise into your daily routine and lifestyle.

When starting exercise, pick something you enjoy. You can use your friends or family as motivators to keep you on track.

  • Enjoy the benefits of owning a pet — if you own a dog, make the most of your local area for their walks. You could walk in a park or by a beach if they are nearby.
  • If you enjoy dancing, try a creative dance movement class.
  • If you enjoy art, visit a museum or gallery.

How do I overcome obstacles to exercising?

When starting exercise you may experience some barriers, but they can be overcome

Motivation and energy

Mental health issues can be tiring. You may struggle with motivation for exercise. To overcome this, you can:

  • start slow and set small goals
  • reward yourself for exercising
  • try social exercise
  • remind yourself that exercise will help you rest better and feel less tired

Cost

You may think that exercising is too costly. Gym memberships and home exercise equipment can be expensive. There are other, more affordable ways to exercise.

  • Local community centres often have affordable exercise groups.
  • See if your community has a free, local running group.
  • Go for a walk around your block.
  • Explore online exercise classes and exercise apps.

Anxiety or feeling intimidated

You might feel uncomfortable exercising in a public place or joining a group exercise class. This is perfectly normal. To feel more comfortable and build your confidence, you can try:

  • taking a friend with you to an exercise class
  • exercising in comfortable clothes
  • downloading an app to exercise in your own home

Time

If you are short on time, there are things you can try to fit exercise into your routine.

  • Break exercise into small chunks. Instead of doing 30 minutes in one go, do three lots of 10 minutes in a day.
  • Try to wake up earlier.
  • Try to walk around on your lunch break.

Physical limitations

You may have physical obstacles such as an injury or disability that makes it difficult to exercise. You may benefit from seeing a health professional such as a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist to help you recover.

They can suggest exercise options suitable for you, and help you plan activities.

Resources and support

For advice and to get connected to local mental health services, you can call Head to Health on 1800 595 212. Check the operating times.

If you need more information and support, visit Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia (MIFA) for:

  • resources
  • helplines
  • apps
  • online programs
  • forums

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Last reviewed: March 2023


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