Smiling woman takes a walk outside in the sunshine.

It Takes Less Exercise Than You Think to Improve Mental Health

3-minute read

A new British Journal of Sports Medicine study offers hope to those with common mental health disorders. Results present an opportunity for any organizations scrambling to connect their workforce with resources during a shortage of licensed providers.

That physical activity improves mental health is not news. But this review is the first of its kind to evaluate the impact on depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in adult populations. It offers a fresh look at a widely accessible way people can get on the path to feeling better right now.

Study Highlights
  • Scientists analyzed data from 97 systematic reviews involving 128,119 subjects including healthy adults as well as those with mental health disorders and chronic diseases.
  • Several types of physical activity were found effective in improving mental well-being, including aerobic, resistance, mixed-mode, and yoga.
  • Moderate-to-high intensity sessions are more effective, but low-intensity activity also improves symptoms.
  • Activities of short (<30 minutes) or medium (30-60 minutes) duration are more effective than sessions over 60 minutes.
  • Exercise programs don’t need to be intensive or long term to raise mental well-being.

In other words, workers experiencing mild symptoms of depression, for example – like daytime sleepiness or fatigue, lack of motivation, and irritability – may benefit just by adding a 20-minute brisk walk to their daily routine.

Obviously, mental health disorders are complex; for some it may take more than exercise to address what is going on. But this large, comprehensive study points to the power of physical activity alone to make a difference.

Why not take these results and run with them, seeing how moving more can help your people?

A Simple Way to Uplift

Even if mental health providers were plentiful, multiple barriers would prevent some from using these services. Online and app-based therapy improves access for some; medication may or may not be appealing, available, affordable, or helpful.

Going for a walk is free and available almost anytime, for almost anyone – and worthwhile, from a well-being standpoint, even when short and sweet. But many adults aren’t active at even the lowest levels cited in the study. Only 24% of US adults meet recommendations for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity.

An active lifestyle clearly isn’t the only factor affecting employee mental health. A physically and psychologically safe work environment, equitable pay/opportunity, and many other factors also play substantial roles. But promoting an active lifestyle — well within the purview of a workplace wellness leader — can spark a positive ripple effect.

What Wellness Leaders/Teams Can Do

Reflect on what you already do well to support physical activity and how you can build on that success. For best results, put on your marketing hat. You’ll get more traction by promoting the enjoyment factor with ideas like these than touting mental health benefits:

  1. Encourage outdoor activity where people can experience the benefits of exposure to nature… a double win.
  2. Underscore immediate feel-good perks of physical activity like a brighter mood, more energy, and stress relief – natural magnets for repeat behavior.
  3. Highlight employee stories of the improvement moving more makes in their mental well-being and what types of activities they have fun with.
  4. Select wellness challenges that include a physical activity component and a team or friends feature wrapped in a fun theme – like 10K-A-Day, Summertime, or Walktober.
  5. Inspire workers to look for windows to be active throughout the work day – like a 5–10-minute brisk walk after meetings.
  6. Invite employees to join or form in-person, hybrid, and virtual walking/running/biking groups. Being active with friends and colleagues makes it more fun and motivating.
  7. Promote National Bike Month (May) with free resources from The League of American Bicyclists.
  8. Learn how other organizations are fostering a culture of physical activity.

Helping workers in need connect with mental health providers is vital. But so is investing time and resources into reducing demand for these services. Launching an organized effort to “sell” physical activity enjoyment may be just what your population needs to increase physical and mental thriving.


Beth ShepardBeth Shepard
Well-being consultant, educator, writer |National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach |Certified Lifestyle Medicine Coach|ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist |25+ years in wellness |Jazz enthusiast.