July 12, 2024

Mindful Movement: How Exercise Boosts Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace

In today's work environment, mental wellbeing is a crucial aspect that affects employees at all levels. Despite the common occurrence of consistently high levels of stress, many mental health issues go undiagnosed and untreated. However, a simple and effective solution is often overlooked: a habit of daily exercise. Recent studies highlight the positive impact physical activity can have on mental wellbeing, making it an important part of any corporate wellbeing strategy. This article explores the connection between physical activity and mental health, offering practical insights for wellbeing coordinators to create a healthier, more productive workplace.

The Connection Between Physical Activity and Mental Health

According to the World Health Organisation, one in every eight people worldwide (970 million people) live with a mental disorder.

In Australia, an estimated one in five people (aged 16–85) have experienced a mental disorder in the past 12 months, yet there is still a poor understanding and acceptance of mental illness.1

Due to this, it often goes undiagnosed and either untreated or poorly treated.

The connection between physical activity and mental health is a topic of increasing importance. As corporate wellbeing coordinators, it is crucial to understand how exercise can positively impact the mental wellbeing of employees in the workplace.

There is mounting evidence that suggests exercise is an effective component of treatment for people living with acute and chronic mental illness. With exercise making a big difference in mood and promoting a positive mental health, while also helping to reduce the symptoms of mental illness, there is a significant need for exercise to be a fundamental approach for managing depression and anxiety.

University of South Australia

How Exercise Improves Mood and Cognitive Function

According to a recent 2023 University of South Australia study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or medications for managing depression, anxiety, and distress.2

Further research tells us that physical activity can also protect against developing future mental disorders. A study in The American Journal of Psychiatry found physical activity can protect against the emergence of depression, regardless of age and geographical region.3

In addition, one of the largest studies that examined the association between physical exercise and mental health was published in Lancet with 1.2 million people taking part in the study.4

The key finding was that exercise improved mental health and resulted in 43.2% reduction in poor mental health days that a person would experience per month. People who exercised reported having 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health per month compared to those who did not exercise.

In addition to the above research, exercise is listed as a recommended part of treatment in the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists clinical practice guidelines for mood disorders, American Psychiatric Association guidelines for treatment, the National Institute for Health andCare Excellence (UK), and the Canadian Psychological Association guidelines.5

How much physical activity is needed to see mental health benefits

Any amount of physical activity is better than none, results of the 2018 HUNT study highlighted that 12% of cases of depression could have been prevented by just one hour of exercise a week.6

However, the Lancet study shows that the correlation with mental health burden was lowest when individuals engage in about 45 min of exercise 3 to 5 days per week. This is in close agreement with the recommendation of 150 min per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity from the World Health Organisation.7

For optimal mental health benefits, experts recommend adults aim for at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week.8

Even low to moderate intensity activities like walking for at least 20 minutes per week can provide mental health benefits and lower risk of psychological distress.9

Different types of exercise like sports, cycling, aerobics, resistance training, and mindfulness activities like yoga and tai chi are all beneficial for mental health, with team sports showing particularly strong effects. A combination of cardio and strength training may provide stronger mental health benefits than either type alone.10

How long does it take to see mental health benefits from physical activity

Short-Term Benefits

Even a single session of cardiovascular exercise can provide immediate short-term benefits by increasing levels of mood-boosting brain chemicals like serotonin and endorphins while decreasing stress hormones. This can help reduce negative thinking and improve mood.

Low to moderate intensity activities like walking for as little as 20 minutes can provide a mental health boost on the same day by decreasing stress, anxiety, and negative thinking while improving mood and focus.11

Long-Term Benefits

Researchers from University of South Australia found that exercise interventions as short as 12 weeks can significantly reduce symptoms of these mental health conditions.

Another study found that engaging in low to moderate aerobic exercise for just 6 weeks effectively alleviated depressive symptoms and perceived stress in university students.

The study also indicated that maintaining an exercise habit for over 1 year was associated with a lower risk of developing depressive symptoms compared to shorter durations.12

Therefore, the mental health benefits continue to increase the longer an exercise routine is maintained, with experts recommending making it a regular lifelong habit.13

Overcoming the difficulty of getting started

The difficult part is getting started and helping to make exercise as part of a day-to-day habit that will help people be more resilient to stress.

Getting moving can be really hard! Individuals often lack the motivation to actually start exercising because they have grand expectations that they need to be exercising and eating well all the time. Whilst getting as close as possible to the recommended dose of exercise is going to be great for all of us, it is an unrealistic expectation to assume that everything will change tomorrow morning and they will instantly become Olympic Athletes.

It’s important to remember that it’s not about what type of exercise is the best kind, it’s about what works for the individual, and that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Even one workout a week is known to have great benefits.

People are much more likely to make changes in our physical and mental fitness by slowly integrating exercise into our life.

Therefore, it is important to inspire a commitment to prioritising mental wellbeing through exercise among employees. The effects of exercise on mental wellbeing are profound, and incorporating physical activity into the workplace can lead to a more positive and productive work environment.

Recommendations for your workplace:

1. Encourage employees to take short exercise breaks throughout the workday, such as stretching at their desks or going for a quick walk outside.

2. Offer on-site fitness classes or workshops to promote mindful movement and provide employees with the tools they need to incorporate exercise into their daily routines.

3. Create a supportive environment that values and prioritises employee mental wellbeing, including providing resources for stress management and mental health support.

4. Lead by example by participating in mindful movement activities and promoting a healthy work-life balance for all employees.

5. Incorporate initiatives that help employees to create a habit of exercise making it a regular lifelong habit that appeal to all fitness levels in the workplace.

Incorporating physical activity into the daily routine of employees is not just about promoting physical health, but also about fostering a mentally resilient workforce. The extensive research underscores that exercise significantly reduces the symptoms of mental health disorders and enhances overall mood and cognitive function.

By encouraging regular physical activity and creating supportive environments, you can help employees build lasting habits that contribute to their mental wellbeing. Paving the way for a healthier, happier, and more productive workplace where mental health is a priority and exercise is a cornerstone of your wellbeing strategy.


  1. World Health Organization. (n.d.). Mental disorders. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-disorders
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (n.d.). Prevalence and impact of mental illness. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/mental-health/overview/prevalence-and-impact-of-mental-illness
  3. University of South Australia. (n.d.). Our research shows that exercise is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or medications. Retrieved from https://unisa.edu.au/research/impact-stories/our-research-shows-that-exercise-is-1.5-times-more-effective-than-counselling-or-medication
  4. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). PubMed. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29690792/
  5. EurekAlert. (n.d.). News releases. Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/672552
  6. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). PubMed: 2020 Rayal Australian and NZ College. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33353391/
  7. American Journal of Psychiatry. (2017). HUNT. Retrieved from https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.16111223
  8. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Is Regular Activity a Key to Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6349619/
  9. EurekAlert. (n.d.). News releases. Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/672552
  10. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). PubMed: Dose Response. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18403415/
  11. Les Mills. (n.d.). Mental health research. Retrieved from https://www.lesmills.com/fit-planet/health/mental-health-research/
  12. Children's Hospital Colorado. (n.d.). Mental health benefits of exercise. Retrieved from https://www.childrenscolorado.org/conditions-and-advice/parenting/parenting-articles/mental-health-benefits-exercise/
  13. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). PMC. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9517129/

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