Exercise does more than just tone your abs and arms. Regularly working out can improve your mood and self esteem, reduce stress and anxiety and more.

It's been known for years the benefits of exercise go far beyond flatter abs or a number on the scale. Sure, exercise can change your body and make you stronger, but it's also important for our health and well-being. Regular exercise can reduce your risk of chronic conditions, like diabetes and heart disease, but it's also really important for our mental health. Here's more about how exercise can boost your mood, reduce stress and benefit you in ways you might not have realized.

Mental benefits of exercise

Research shows regular exercise can:

  • Reduce stress
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Lower anxiety
  • Lift your mood
  • Boost energy levels

In addition, exercise may help you sleep better and increase your interest in sex, two other lifestyle habits that may reduce stress and improve your mood. Take your exercise outside and you may get an even bigger mood boost. (Spending time in nature could be the key to happiness, according to research.)

Why exercising is so important right now

Now, more than ever, people are looking for ways to escape (without actually going anywhere). And it's no wonder. These are trying times. We need an outlet. A recent poll from the American Psychiatric Association found that more than a third of Americans say COVID-19 is impacting their mental health. Nearly two-thirds of those same people said the pandemic is having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives.

Unfortunately a recent Gallop Poll suggests 38% of people say they're getting less exercise now, with just 14% saying they're getting more (48% of US adults say the amount is unchanged).

Given the severity and uncertainty of these times, it's important to try and control what we can. "Exercise is 90% mental and 10% physical," says Jen Fisher, Chief Well-Being Officer at Deloitte. "Exercise—any structured and planned movement—is something that you can control. Routine is so important, considering our normal—well, previous—routines have been uprooted." (Here are some tips for practicing self care and establishing a routine right now.)

Surprising ways exercise is good for you

In addition to the importance of routine, research shows physical exercise can be an effective mental health intervention. All movement counts and maybe the most important message is that some movement is better than no movement.

Karen Pilkington, PhD, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, has published an extensive amount of research on the topic of exercise and mental health. "In terms of yoga specifically, more recent reviews have indicated benefits of yoga for those who have raised levels of depression and raised levels of anxiety." Practicing yoga regularly is positively associated with well-being (here's 6 more health benefits of yoga).

woman doing yoga with laptop at home
Credit: Getty Images / Marko Geber

If you've ever had a regular yoga practice, you likely already knew the above was true. The key here, is regular. While yoga is fantastic, so is any other type of exercise you may do consistently. The best form of exercise is the one you enjoy and that you'll be most consistent with. That may be walking, running, dancing, spinning, hiking or going to the gym. Many online well-being sites, like Peloton, Grokker, Beachbody and others are offering free access to their workouts. Some local gyms and studios have shifted to online classes as well.

How to add exercise to your routine

If you're looking for your own routine, consider building movement into your own schedule. One idea is to build a "commute" into your day to day routine. Once you're done with breakfast and preparing to start your day, walk out the door, go for a 15 or so minute walk. Follow that same approach for the end of the day, where you create a hard stop (and some movement) between work and home.

Take short breaks throughout your day. Just 10-15 minutes between meetings or before a meal, to get up and move. If you can get outside for a quick walk around your neighborhood, amazing. Sunshine and outdoor air is also good for the soul. Or consider a few bodyweight exercises periodically throughout the day that we'll call "movement snacks." Just like snacks you may eat at regular intervals throughout the day, take 5-10 minutes for small movement breaks—or micro workouts—just the same.

Take a short walk, walk stairs for a few minutes or try this at-home routine—no equipment required:

10 body weight squats

10 push ups (modify if needed with your hands on something stable and elevated)

10 sun salutations

10 cat and cow stretches

10 runners lunge stretches on each leg

Bottom line

Maybe none of those are the endorphin rush you're used to, so you do you. But understand that all movement, within a structured routine, is what you're after. And if you want to push the envelope and exercise harder and have the outlet to do that, that's great too.

Whatever it is you try, remember, that while exercise has unlimited physical perks, the real unsung hero is the mental outlet and resulting benefits.