We all know that exercise is good for our physical health. If you’re reading this article, you’re also probably aware that physical activity can positively impact our mental well-being.

But a common – and understandable – question is, how much do I need to run or walk to get the mental health benefits? The good news is that you don’t have to spend hours in a gym or train for a marathon to experience a cognitive boost.


Small bouts of exercise make a big difference

Lack of time is one of the biggest barriers to starting a new exercise routine. But what if you could improve your mental well-being by finding a few minutes in your busy schedule?

Fortunately, that appears to be the case. Research suggests that small amounts of exercise – such as 10 minutes of walking – can improve mood and feelings of energy.

And here’s more good news – all physical activity “counts” for improving mental wellness. You can also break up movement into smaller chunks, such as by going for a few short walks throughout the day or taking “exercise snacks” when you have a free minute or two.


Exercise recommendations from mental health studies

Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, enhance mood, and boost self-esteem. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for how much exercise is needed to improve mental health, research provides some guidelines.

In 2022, the John W. Brick Foundation for Mental Health released the Move Your Mental Health™ report, which reviewed over 1000 scientific studies on physical activity and mental health. Considering all the available evidence, the report concluded, “Overall, three to five 30-45-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week appear to deliver optimal mental health benefits.”

For some, that range may seem daunting. But don’t feel pressured to hit these numbers right away. Instead, start small with walks or runs that fit your current fitness level and how much time you have available in your schedule. Once you establish the habit, gradually increase the frequency or duration of your activity. And remember, how you feel is more important than the numbers.


CDC Guidelines

Beyond the mental health studies, we can also look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for physical activity for overall health. They recommend engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity (like running) per week, combined with muscle-strengthening activities two or more days a week.

When you do the math, the CDC recommendations line up closely with the mental health studies, giving us another clue about how much exercise to shoot for.


Something is better than nothing – but more is not always better

When it comes to physical activity to manage stress or improve your mood, doing something is almost always better than nothing. That’s another reason to start with shorter sessions to feel the positive effects and gain confidence. And, if you have a 30-minute walk planned but life gets in the way, then go for what you can, even if it’s for a handful of minutes.