best exercise for mental health

Ask the team – what’s the best exercise for mental health?

It’s no secret that exercise can help improve mental health – an abundance of research on conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD repeatedly shows that exercise is an effective tool for treatment (1). Research also shows that it helps with stress reduction, improving sleep quality, increasing energy levels, increasing confidence and self-perception (2) – all things which are important for a healthy mind!

Some psychology organisations even suggest that “structured exercise therapies should become part of standard psychiatric care” (3) – which would put it on the same pedestal as medication and talk therapies! 

We encourage all of our clients to exercise for the physical and psychological benefits. So what kind of exercise physiologists would we be if we didn’t practise what we preach?

We brought it to last week’s team meeting to get everyone’s opinion on the best type of exercise to improve mental health. 


The best exercise for mental health

best exercise for mental health

Being keen on exercise is kind of a prerequisite of the job, but we understand that not everyone is this way inclined. The cool thing about using exercise to improve mental health is that it’s all about YOU and your personal preferences. Which means that you don’t have to go to the gym if you don’t want to. You don’t have to run 5km. You don’t even have to walk 5km. 

It’s up to the individual to decide what works best for them. And with the huge variety of exercise options available, there really is something for everyone! The most important thing is that it’s something that YOU enjoy, and that you’re actually getting out to do it. 

But don’t just take our word, let us show you in practice… Here was the large variety of responses we got from the team!


  • Aidan: Bush walking – What better a way to disconnect from the stresses of everyday life than to head for the trees? It is actually scientifically proven that getting your ‘blues and greens’ in (blues = ocean & lake, greens = bush & mountain) has additional benefits for mental health. Outdoor exercise, yes please!
  • Biara: Swimming and running. Many people say that they find swimming lanes boring, but not for Biara! The repetitive nature of laps puts her into a meditative zone where she can completely unplug from the rest of the world, providing relief in times where anxiety creeps in!
  • Brad: Jiu Jitsu. He reports it to be a “deep, meditative activity with dire physical consequences”. Pay attention or you’ll end up being put to sleep! Who else likes living life on the edge?

  • Crystal: A long walk outside or dancing. Have you considered dancing as a form of exercise? It definitely can be! If you, like Crystal, enjoy a good boogie, why not schedule some hip-shakin’ into your weekly routine?
  • Dan: Trail walking / trail running. Those blues and greens again, and a few hurdles to keep your brain focused… Watch out for those tree roots!
  • Eric: Walking or playing a team sport. If you don’t like exercising alone, why not rope in some friends for a game? Knock off those calories while getting some social time in too (just don’t drink them back on again with those after-game beersies!).
  • Georgia: Boxing. And in her own words…“because of the cathartic release of pent up rage”. Feeling frustrated? Short fuse? Let it aaaalllllll out…

boxing for mental health

  • Hussein: Boxing and strength training. Hussein is our ‘hypertrophy’ expert (and boy does he get teased about it!). Do you want to put on some muscle mass? Have a chat with Huss. 
  • Mia: Tennis. Because you’re so distracted by the game that it doesn’t leave much mental space for anything else! While we are advocates for ‘feeling your feels’, we all need a little bit of distraction sometimes…
  • Mel: Weight lifting – specifically front squats. Achieving the perfect squat is a matter of mastery… Whoever says women can’t lift has a lesson or two to learn from Mel!

front squat

  • Mark: Wim Hof breathing. Now this was an interesting response! Described as ‘controlled hyperventilation’, this method aims to improve your resilience to everyday stress, increase energy levels, and improve mental clarity! (4) Something different…
  • Tessa: Boxing. Tessa reckons boxing is a great way to refocus the mind – “You can’t think of anything else or you’ll get hit in the face”. (Ouch! Each to their own!)
  • Yolanda: Trail running and yoga / stretching. How good to nourish the body with a few gentle stretches after a long day?! Stretching is a great wind-down activity to clear the mind before bed too.


Well, there you have it, our diverse range of exercise tastes! Who do you relate with the most? Has this given you any new ideas for exercise to try?

If you are looking to optimise your mental health using exercise, start with the type of exercise that interests you the most. After all, if you’re enjoying it, you’ll feel better during it AND you’ll do it more often! If none of these interest you, it might be time to rope in a friend to join you, or pick up a sport for the social aspects instead. 

Good luck!





Author: Yolanda van Vugt 
Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Content Creator at Specialised Health

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