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Revisiting the Mind-Body Connection

The mental health benefits of physical fitness.

Key points

  • Physical activity has been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety.
  • Behavioral and social interventions have been found effective at increasing physical activity.
  • Digital technologies offer novel approaches for incorporateing exercise into one’s routines.

By Jorge R. Petit, M.D.,

Physical fitness enhances a general sense of well-being. If you wish to reduce your level of stress or improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, exercise can help. The field of psychiatry has developed a growing appreciation for exercise as a powerful tool in enhancing one’s mental health. This shift is reflected in research and healthcare practices, highlighting the integral role of physical activity in maintaining not just physical but also mental health.

The global pandemic has highlighted the importance of well-being, as evidenced by increased media coverage on the impact of loneliness and isolation, a spate of celebrity disclosures of their emotional struggles, and new federal policy initiatives aimed at increasing awareness about mental health issues. Mental health, once a taboo topic, is now openly discussed and acknowledged as a critical component of overall health, leading to greater awareness of its crucial role in well-being.

These changes are most likely due to the fact that society is currently grappling with rising rates of depression and anxiety among children and adolescents, increased rates of suicide and overdose deaths, ongoing difficulty accessing behavioral health supports and services, and a lack of parity and adequate coverage for needed mental health services. Additionally, an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, especially among adolescents, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic’s school lockdowns, remote learning, and social distancing, has repeatedly been shown to have deleterious effects on health, mental health, and emotional well-being.

The Mind-Body Connection

The connection between physical fitness and mental health is established. Engaging in regular exercise can lead to improved self-esteem and enhanced cognitive functioning. Research has consistently shown that physical activity is not just beneficial for physical fitness but also plays a key role in alleviating the symptoms of certain mental health conditions and promoting mental health and well-being. The findings are consistent across the globe. For example, The Global State of Mind Index study revealed a strong positive link between physical activity and mental health.

Exercise is now recognized as a viable and important component of holistic care in managing mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, and stress. As awareness of the benefits grows, healthcare practitioners are increasingly recommending physical activity as part of comprehensive treatment plans for a number of mental health conditions.

For example, in 2022, the John W. Brick Foundation published Move Mental Health: A Review of the Scientific Evidence on the Role of Exercise and Physical Activity in Mental Health. The report analyzed over 1,000 studies, finding a statistically significant correlation between physical activity (defined as cardiovascular/aerobic activities and mindfulness-based activities like yoga and tai chi) and mental health in 89% of the peer reviewed research. This vast literature review clearly demonstrated that general physical activity was beneficial when taking into account intensity (moderate to vigorous), frequency (several times per week) and combination of aerobic and resistance training.

Strategies to Increase Physical Activity

Several behavioral and social interventions and community-wide initiatives effectively can increase physical activity, improve fitness among children and adults, and consequently help boost mental health and well-being. Some of the interventions make use of digital, mobile, and wearable technologies, but there are many effective approaches that do not require anything high-tech or costly.

  • Engaging in outdoor activities like hiking, cycling, or even a simple walk in the park or taking advantage of local school indoor tracks and senior or community centers (some even have pools), which in many instances are free or low-cost, can improve one’s health and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Participating in group exercises or joining sports teams provides social support and a level of accountability that can significantly enhance participation in physical activities and be helpful in managing one’s mental health.
  • Tailored exercise programs, whether on one’s own or with a fitness professional, can help in maintaining consistency and can be designed to meet one’s needs and preferences.
  • Mind-body practices like yoga, tai chi, and pilates, which focus on the connection between physical movement and mental relaxation, have been shown to be particularly beneficial in managing stress and anxiety.

What Digital and Online Resources Are Available?

Technology-assisted solutions, like apps or other digital methods for guided workouts or virtual reality fitness games, can make exercise more engaging, especially for individuals who find traditional exercise routines of limited appeal. Some apps use behavioral intervention techniques, such as goal setting, positive reinforcement, gamification, and habit-forming strategies to encourage regular physical activity.

Below, is a list of some of the most popular digital, mobile, and wearable resources to help achieve one’s goals. Please note, the following resources are provided for informational purposes only and not intended to be an endorsement of the companies or the products by either myself or the Group for Advancement of Psychiatry.

  • Digital fitness platforms and apps like MyFitnessPal, Nike Training Club, and Strava offer personalized workout routines, tracking features, and community support. They often include gamified elements like earning badges or competing with friends, which can motivate the user to be more engaged and active.
  • Wearable ftness trackers like Fitbit, Apple Watch, and Garmin track physical activity, heart rate, and sleep patterns; providing feedback and reminders that encourage users to be more physically active and thus contributing to improved mental well-being.
  • Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) workouts offer immersive fitness experiences, making exercise more engaging and enjoyable, for example, VR fitness games like Hot Squat, Sound Boxing, Yoga VR, Toss, provide a fun way to exercise and relieve stress.
  • Online fitness community platforms like Peloton and Zwift create virtual communities where one can participate in live or on-demand classes, connect with others, and track one’s progress. These communities offer a sense of belonging and motivation, which are important factors for one’s mental wel-being.
  • Telehealth and online coaching have made it easier to access professional guidance for physical activities; online coaching and virtual consultations with fitness trainers or physiotherapists can provide personalized exercise plans tailored to the user’s needs and preferences.
  • Smart home gym equipment like Tonal offer interactive workout experiences at home, providing a range of guided exercises with real-time feedback and making it convenient to maintain a regular exercise routine.
  • Apps focusing on yoga and mindfulness, such as Headspace or Calm, incorporate physical activity with mental relaxation techniques and are effective at reducing stress and anxiety while also improving physical fitness.
  • Integrated health and wellness platforms like Google Fit and Apple Health can track and integrate data from various sources to provide a comprehensive view of one’s health and fitness, encouraging a more holistic approach to personal well-being.

Five Practical Tips to Get Started

Countless New Year’s resolutions and a high level of new gym memberships at the start of each new year attest to the fact that individuals want to engage in more physical activity. However, changing behavior, such as incorporating exercise into one’s daily routine can be very challenging.

However, all too often, individuals set unrealistic goals and expectations for themselves or decide to focus on doing something they are not fond of (like going out to a gym). This sets them up to get discouraged when they realize how hard it is or when they don’t see quick results. The best approach is not to try “to boil the ocean” but to take slow and deliberate steps that make for a sustained change in one’s routines. After all, even small amounts of exercise can lead to significant improvements in both physical and mental health.

With that in mind, here are 5 practical tips to help get started, regardless of fitness level or age:

  • Start Small and Set Realistic Goals: Begin with short, manageable exercise sessions; for example, a 10-15 minute walk once or twice a week is a great start. Setting achievable goals helps build confidence and begins to establish a routine without feeling overwhelming. Over time, one can add more to the routine—but keep it short and simple when starting.
  • Incorporate Physical Activity into Daily Activities: Look for opportunities to be more active in daily routines. This could mean taking the stairs instead of the elevator or exiting the elevator a floor below one’s destination and walking up the last flight of stairs, or getting off a bus or subway stop before the destination and walking the rest of the way. Park the car at the far end of the parking lot or a block away from the post office. Take a walk during lunch breaks or just start off with some simple physical activity like stretching or standing up during prolonged sitting periods at work. Whatever you decide to start with, remember to take it slow and build it into your routine.
  • Select Enjoyable Activities: Physical activity doesn't have to be a chore. One should choose already enjoyable activities, be it dancing, gardening, biking, yoga, or walking. Such activities are more likely to be sustained over the long run.
  • Technology Can Help: Make use of fitness apps or wearable technology to track progress, set reminders, or join virtual fitness challenges. “Nudges” can make changing habits more enjoyable, boost motivation, and help you stay accountable.
  • Create a Routine and Stick to It: Establish a regular exercise schedule and try to stick to it. Consistency is key. Whether it’s morning jogs, evening walks, or weekend yoga sessions, having a routine makes exercise a regular part of one’s life.

The goal is to make physical activity a regular and enjoyable part of one’s lifestyle. To start, gradually increase the intensity and duration of workouts. By incorporating some form of regular physical activity into daily routines, one can be more successful at managing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress, and improve overall quality of life. The secret is starting slow and then systematically and methodically incorporating physical activity into everyday routines as a way of achieving optimal well-being.

Jorge R. Petit, M.D., is member of the Committee on Administration and Leadership at the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry.


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Duckworth AL, Gross JJ. Behavior Change. Organ Behav Hum Decis Process. 2020 Nov;161(Suppl):39-49. doi: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2020.09.002. Epub 2020 Dec 10. PMID: 33716396; PMCID: PMC7946166.

Mikkelsen K, Stojanovska L, Polenakovic M,et al. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 2017, 106,48-56.

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