Let’s Get Moving! Physical Activity’s Role in Building Strong Mental Health

Black woman smiles and stretches before exercising

In a world of ever-present distractions, it’s easy to overlook the creeping signs of anxiety, depression, or frustration. Often the go-to remedies involve self-soothing distractions like substance or alcohol use, digital escapism, and comfort foods—but what if the key to mental wellness lies in a different direction? Exercise is arguably the most affordable, immediate, and accessible mental health intervention available to us, and can be a valuable tool for anyone looking to enhance their overall emotional resilience. This article explores the transformative power of physical activity on our mental health—offering insights and expert recommendations for both adults and children on the best types of exercise for addressing specific mental health challenges.

The Impact of Regular Exercise on Mental Health:

Regular exercise can help reduce stress and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. According to Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Melinda Smith, M.A. in this Help.org article, “exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication – but without the side effects.” Further, regular exercise can effectively treat and prevent anxiety and reduce stress and is “one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce the symptoms of ADHD and improve concentration, motivation, memory, and mood…[working] in much the same way as medications such as Ritalin and Adderall.” Exercise has even helped patients with their recovery from PTSD and trauma. Traumatic events cause system overload and transcend words, but exercise can help people focus on their bodies and become mindful of how it feels during the physical activity, helping the nervous system “become ‘unstuck’ and begin to move out of the immobilization stress response that characterizes PTSD or trauma.” The studies referenced in the article show the connection between regular physical activity and improved mental health. 

Regular exercise can empower children’s mental health as well. According to this article by the American Psychological Association, kids and teens who exercise regularly have lower rates of depression, stress, and psychological distress, while also experiencing higher positive self-image, life satisfaction, and psychological well-being. Exercise also demonstrably improved behaviors in children and teens – including those diagnosed with autism, ADHD, anxiety, and depression. And such a wide variety of the exercise kids love is free – and as accessible as the playground, back yard, or neighborhood park. It certainly makes a case for encouraging our children to “Go outside and play”.

Exercise Recommendations for Specific Mental Health Challenges:

Anxiety & Depression:

  • Take a long walk or a short run. The previously cited Help.org article reported the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s study found running for as little as 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.
  • Aerobic exercise. Get that blood pumping! According to this study on Exercise for Mental Health, studies have proved “aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing,” reduce anxiety and depression.


  • Aerobics with coordination and focus. Michael Lara, M.D. recommends providing high levels of aerobic exercise for people who struggle with ADHD, but he clarified that “challenging the body as well as the brain with complex activities like martial arts, ballet, ice skating, gymnastics, rock climbing, and mountain biking seems to have a greater  positive impact than aerobic exercise alone.”

Trauma and PTSD

  • Cross-body movement and outdoor activities. Robinson, Segal, and Smith recommend “exercises that involve cross movement [engaging] both arms and legs—such as walking (especially in sand), running, swimming, weight training, or dancing—are some of your best choices for trauma-impacted people, [while] outdoor activities like hiking, sailing, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing (downhill and cross-country) have also been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.”

SPORTS: Teamwork and Mental Health 

Michael Klinkner, LCSW, describes how kids struggling with anxiety, depression, and other behavioral challenges find sports to be a great outlet. In addition to the physical activity stimulating mood-enhancing chemicals and reducing the stress hormone cortisol, sports also help kids get better at persevering through difficult challenges, cultivate relationships, and participate more effectively in social activities. All these elements promote a healthier, more connected social, mental, and emotional state.

Getting Started: Simplifying the Approach to Exercise.

Starting with simple, achievable activities can make the integration of exercise into daily routines less daunting. Suggestions include taking a brief walk during lunch breaks, engaging in a daily squat or jumping jack challenge, incorporating walks into date nights, going for family bike rides, or playing active games with family and friends. Setting small, realistic goals with short timelines can be an effective strategy. The primary aim is to gradually perceive physical activity as an essential response to stress and a key component of maintaining robust mental health.

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting.

About the Author

MaryJo Burchard (Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership) is co-founder and principal of Concord Solutions, a Virginia-based consultancy firm focused on helping leaders and organizations thrive while facing major disruption. Concord Solutions offers consulting, coaching, training, research, and keynote speaking surrounding trauma-informed leadership and assessing and building change readiness, trust, and belonging.

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