Exercise for Mental Health: Benefits of Movement for your Brain

The benefits of exercise for mental and physical health, as well as cognitive functioning, are numerous and well researched. In fact, it is so important that many successful students use exercise as a part of their daily study habits. This post breaks down all the benefits that exercise can have as well what types of exercise are recommended for improving one’s physical and mental health.

The Benefits of Exercise for Mental Health

The evidence is very clear. Exercise is super important to one’s physical and mental well-being. Exercise is proven to decrease the risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancers.

Cognitively various studies have shown that exercise can improve:

Research has also been made into the benefits of exercise for improving mental health. Increased physical exercise has been linked with preventing or decreasing symptoms related to:

What Exercises Improve Mental Health?

But what type of exercise should we do to improve our health?

A great source of information to follow is the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines published in 2020. These guidelines recommend three types of movement, which we will further breakdown in this article:

  1. Cardiovascular Training: Recommended 150-minutes of LISS (i.e. brisk walk) or 75-minutes HIIT (i.e. running) each week.
  2. Strength Training: 2 Days of resistance/strength training using major muscle groups each week.
  3. Light Movement: Including light exercise (i.e. standing/walking) throughout the day.

These guidelines also recommend getting 7 to 9 hours of high-quality sleep on a regular basis as well as limiting the amount of time spent on screens or sitting down.

Cardiovascular Training

Cardiovascular Exercise for Mental Health

Depending on the kind of cardiovascular exercises the recommended length of training differs.

Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) cardiovascular training is moderate exercising over a prolonged period of time. Moderate exercise is usually where one can still talk but perhaps be unable to sing and can be maintained over longer periods of time. Typically, it is recommended that one maintains 150 minutes of LISS exercise per week split over multiple days. Spacing out your exercise can help ensure that your body fully recovers. For example, exercising 50 minutes, 3 times a week.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is where one performs short bursts of high-intensity exercises followed by low-intensity exercise. During high-intensity cardiovascular exercises one would be unable to both sing and talk. Those who choose to do HIIT training are recommended to have 75 minutes of exercise split over multiple days.

The following are some examples of what HIIT training may look like. Don’t forget to adapt the exercises so that they work for you. Create a training regime that you enjoy and believe is achievable.

ExerciseHigh-Intensity Period Low-Intensity PeriodNumber of Repetitions
Running or
30 seconds90 seconds10
Running or
4 minutes3 minutes4
Cycling30 seconds 30 seconds rest25
Cycling1 minute1 Minute 10
(i.e., jumping
jacks, shuttle
runs, jump
rope, step-ups)
1 minute 30 seconds walk9

Strength Training

Strength Exercise for Mental Health

Typically, strength training is done with weights such as dumbells. These exercises are divided according to reps and sets. A rep is the number of times you repeat an exercise before resting. For example, 10 biceps curls. A set is the number of times you will repeat a rep between each period of rest. For example, 4 sets of 10 bicep curls.

It is recommended that one follows these guidelines when conducting strength training:

  • Complete 8-12 reps during intense training
  • Complete 15-20 reps for endurance training
  • Complete 2-4 sets per exercise
  • Have 1-3 minutes of rest between each set
  • Rest 48 hours between workign the same muscle groups (allows muscles to fully recover)

Training should be targeted at the following “major muscle groups”:

  • Back
  • Chest
  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Core

Minor muscle groups, such as biceps, triceps, shoulder, and calves, can be worked as well but are less linked to improving mental health.

It is recommended that one exercises all of the major muscle groups twice a week. Many people opt to split their workout to exercise upper/lower body on separate days. If this is the case make sure that each muscle group still gets exercised twice each week.

Good examples of strength training exercises include:

  • Squats (Exercises quads, glutes, and hamstrings)
  • Push-ups (Exercises chest and tricepts)
  • Rows (Back and biceps)
  • Plank (Core)

Once again, do not forget to adapt these exercises to meet your needs. Try increasing/decreasing tempo, supersets, circuits, body-weight exercises, free-weight exercises, machines, etc.

How to Stay Motivated When Exercising

Staying Motivated when Exercising

Everyone is at their own point on their journey to exercising. It is important to not compare yourself to others and focus on your own unique path to exercise.

Like any activity, procrastination is the enemy of exercise. To help you stay motivated when exercising we recommend a few helpful tips!

  • Set specific goals and celebrate when you achieve them
  • Find ways of making exercise fun (i.e. a sport you like)
  • Workout with friends
  • Tell others about your goals and ask them to keep you on track
  • Create a routine that is easy to follow
  • Add exercise to daily tranpsortation and leisure activities
  • Add music to your exercise routine
  • Perform physical activities out in nature

Remember, any activity is better than no activity. Take baby steps towards your goal and slowly push yourself outside your comfort zone. Exercising is painful and difficult but its mental health benefits alone way outway its disadvantages.

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