Is Exercise the Answer to Emotional Well-Being?

Pandemic-related stress and uncertainties have left many Vermonters searching for ways to take care of themselves physically and mentally. What if the key to both was literally at your feet? 

We all know that staying active is good for our bodies, whether it’s hiking the Green Mountains or some other form of physical movement or sports. But the physical benefits are only the start. Exercising our bodies may also be one of the most effective things we can do to take care of our mental and emotional well-being. 

The best part? It’s freely available and accessible to (most) everyone. And it takes only a few hours a week to reap the benefits to mental wellness.

Exploring Summer in Vermont: Intro to Hiking workshop with the Green Mountain Club.

Clear Links Between Mental Health and Exercise

A growing body of evidence links a physically active lifestyle to good mental health. Exercising seems to offer short-term as well as long-lasting benefits. It can be both preventative — sustaining wellness and bolstering resilience — and therapeutic, alleviating symptoms of anxiety or depression. It helps us manage stress and reinforces healthy coping skills. 

Whether you’re feeling okay or feeling down, being physically active can make you feel better. A number of studies have shown, for example, that a simple walking regimen improves mental health in people who are depressed. Some studies have found that a 30-minute brisk walk is as effective as antidepressant pills in alleviating symptoms of depression.

Exercisers Have Fewer Bad Days

The largest study yet on exercise and mental health, involving more than 1.2 million Americans, showed a clear benefit. It also revealed new insights about the optimal frequency and duration, and what types of exercise are best. People who exercised reported 43 percent fewer days of poor mental health in the previous month than individuals who didn’t. The association was seen across the full age span, for men and women, across all racial groups, and at all levels of household income. 

In addition, all types of exercise were associated with a reduction in mental health burden. Mindful exercises such as yoga and tai chi were associated with a significantly greater reduction in mental health burden than walking or any other exercise. After mindful exercises, the strongest associations were seen for popular team sports, cycling, aerobic and gym-based activities. Just engaging in household chores was beneficial, associated with at least 10 percent reduction in reported days of poor mental health. 

The Sweet Spot of Exercise Duration, Frequency

Importantly, more exercise was not necessarily better. The duration and frequency linked most closely to better mental health was 30 to 60 minutes (peaking at 45 minutes), done three to five times per week. This fits with physical activity guidelines in the U.S. and other countries, which generally call for a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most days of the week. Exercising for more than three hours was worse than exercising for either 45 minutes or not exercising at all. Similarly, individuals who exercise between three and five times a week had a lower mental health burden than those who exercised fewer or more times per week. 

The message: you don’t need to spend your life in the gym to get the mental health benefits of exercise.

Read the study abstract here: Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study

Read an article about the study on Psycom: Exercise for Optimal Mental Health: Here’s Why Moving Can Be as Effective as Drugs

What You Need to Know

Any exercise is better than none. This applies to the type of exercise, how vigorously you’re working your body, how often you do it and for how long. The whole spectrum counts.

It doesn’t take a lot. A few hours a week can make a difference to mental health. In a study of 1.2 million Americans, exercising just 2 to 6 hours a week was associated with better mental health. 

Every bit helps. If all you have is 15 minutes, use it to move. When you have 15 more, use it to move. It adds up and it all matters

Any type of exercise will do. That includes household chores and gardening. Yoga and tai chi too. It all works. Mindful exercise practices had the greatest association with better mental health, followed closely by popular sports. 

The right exercise is the one (or the many) that works for you. What makes you feel good, engages you, makes you want to keep doing it? The one you want to do is the one most likely to stick.

Join us on July 14 for our Intro to Hiking workshop.

Find Resources on Exercise and Mental Health

Helpful information for getting started and staying motivated to exercise is available at the Move Your Way website in English and Spanish. Move Your Way is a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Exercise for Mental Health: 8 Keys to Get and Stay Moving, an article by Christina G. Hibbert for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), has great motivational strategies.

The Mayo Clinic’s Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms is a brief summary of how exercise helps and how to get moving.

Read Benefits of Exercise from, the U.S. government’s public-health information site. It provides a summary of the mental and physical health effects of physical activity and tips for getting more exercise into your day. You’ll also find trusted links for learning more.

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the website, plus Multilingual Resources.

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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