When you think of starting a fitness program you are likely considering losing weight, improving your cardiovascular health, or working for muscle tone. While all of these things can certainly be achieved by working out regularly, one of the most important aspects of a fitness routine is that it makes you feel good. If you feel good, other things in your life, including health, relationships and even career goals, tend to shift in a positive direction.

Research has demonstrated that exercise can support mental health in numerous ways. Exercise can: 

  • Reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety  – Approximately 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression and 275 million suffer from anxiety. While exercise is not a cure-all for either of these conditions, research has shown that it can definitely help improve your relationship to them. 
  • Improve overall mood – Research has shown that exercise may help reduce negative emotions.
  • Increase self esteem – One study that found simply joining a walking group increased feelings of self esteem. 
  • Reduce fatigue – One review found that exercise may be beneficial in reducing symptoms in patients with chronic fatigue. 
  • Increase interest in sex – This study from 2006 found exercise to have a long list of benefits for mental health, one of them being an increase in interest in sex. 

Do these benefits sound like something you could use in your life right now? Then it’s time to get moving. Even if hitting the gym isn’t really for you, there are many ways to move your body that can help you feel good right now. 

1. Lift your arms above your head and smile

This is one of my favorite mood boosting movements. It was met with a lot of skepticism by my former officemates who I used to encourage to do this when they were feeling down, but it almost always worked. Throw your arms up above your head and reach your fingertips to the sky. Now smile. It might feel silly, but it is actually really difficult to feel sad when in this position. Scientific research confirms that postures and movements can affect emotional state. The simple act of smiling has also been shown to decrease stress and its symptoms. 

2. Do literally any type of movement outside – Going outside into nature, even just to a local park, can elicit so many health benefits that doing literally any type of movement outside can positively affect your mood. In 2017, one team of researchers reviewed various studies on the topic and laid out a list of twenty proven health benefits to being in nature. Though they note varying levels of evidence, this list includes reduced aggression, reduced stress, depression and anxiety, general feelings of happiness, and improved general health.

3. Run – The good old runner’s high. Endorphins, endocannabinoids, monoamines, neurotrophins, and micro-ribonucleic acid all play a role in the good feelings that so many runners experience post run. There are some complex things happening there, but the very simple conclusion is that going for a run will likely boost your mood.  

4. Stretch and breathe – The very act of taking deep breaths can elevate your mood and decrease feelings of stress. Adding a few standing stretches to the mix will allow the blood and oxygen to flow through your body and brain. In a more esoteric sense, this type of movement can shift stagnant energy and get you ‘out of your head and into your body,’ which is a beautiful place to become aware of your emotions. To practice this stretch: Stand with your feet a bit wider than hips width apart. Keep a slight bend in your knees. Inhale deeply and lift your arms above your head reaching towards the sky, without lifting your shoulders. Exhale and slowly reach down towards your toes. Stay there for a few moments and let tension release from your neck and spine. Inhale again and slowly roll back up to standing envisioning doing so vertebrae by vertebrae. Repeat this motion fairly quickly at least three or more times.

5. Dance – Turning up the music and dancing around your living room can be an instant mood booster. Research has shown that dancing can in fact lead to subjective well-being. Dancing at home without the pressure of other people’s eyes can allow you to let go, release some tension, and feel good! 

You can really exercise in almost any way to reap the mental health benefits. The important thing is that you move in a way that makes you happy. Let go of the workouts you think you should be doing and move in ways that bring joy. This makes for an all around healthy workout regimen and one that you can maintain for a long time.