How to start a movement practice for your mental health

Jun 25, 2024

by Chris Muldoon, co-founder of Strideful

In our busy lives, finding time for self-care is essential. And one of the most proven ways to support mental well-being is through regular physical activity. 

But exercise has its own stigma. Many people look at the fitness industry and assume that physical activity needs to be intense and time-consuming to “count.” No wonder it’s so hard to stick to a routine! 

The good news is that with the right mindset and approach, you can start a sustainable movement practice that enhances your physical and mental health. 

The (many) mental benefits of physical activity

Let’s start by acknowledging that the mind-body connection is very real. Physical activity releases endorphins, serotonin, and other feel-good chemicals that can reduce pain and enhance brain health. Regular movement can also improve energy levels and sleep quality, and reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

So, how much physical activity do you need to support your mental well-being? There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription, but here are a few guidelines.

  • Even short bouts of movement (like a 10-minute walk) or “exercise snacks” throughout the day provide mental and physical benefits.
  • Studies looking at the connection between physical activity and mental health typically recommend a range of 30-45 minutes of exercise 3-5 times a week.
  • For overall wellness, the CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity, along with two days of strength or resistance training.

Chris Muldoon is the co-founder of Strideful, a Buffalo-based startup offering walking and running programs for mental wellness. He is also the cross country coach at SUNY Erie and a youth coach with Snyder Track & Field.

Start by changing your relationship with exercise

The first tip is to reframe what exercise means and how it fits into your life. Instead of the old-school “no pain, no gain” philosophy, think of movement as practice – an ongoing process without a set right or wrong way.


Find Your Why

Understanding why you want to start a movement practice is crucial. Setting external goals like finishing a marathon or losing weight can sound great and provide short-term motivation. However, for long-term success, try to find intrinsic (internal) motivation.

One way is to think about how being physically active aligns with your core values. Write down ways being active helps you be the best version of yourself in other areas of life, like being a more attentive parent or maximizing work productivity.


Pick an activity you enjoy and start small

The best exercise for mental wellness is the one you’ll do consistently. So, choose activities you genuinely enjoy (not that you think you “should” do). If running or the gym isn’t your thing, consider alternatives like dancing, gardening, or hiking.

Start with short, achievable activities to build the habit, then gradually increase the duration or intensity. Be realistic about what your body and schedule can handle. And don’t forget to celebrate your progress, big or small, along the way.


Motivation follows action

Often, the hardest part is starting. There’s a common phrase in psychology: motivation follows action. So don’t wait to feel inspired and ready. Instead, find a way to take that first step—then you’ll have positive momentum (and motivation) in your favor.

Making the Habit Stick

Exercise routines can start with good intentions but quickly fall off when life gets in the way. First, accept that your plan won’t be perfect – and that’s OK. But you can also use science-backed strategies to build a lasting habit. 


Make it obvious and easy

Planning when and how you’ll exercise increases the likelihood of following through. Schedule exercise in your calendar like any other important appointment. Place your workout clothes and sneakers out where you can see them. These tasks might seem trivial, but they give your mind a cue to reinforce the habit.  


Combine activities

Pair exercise with something you really enjoy. This could be working out with friends, walking your dog, or getting out in nature. You can also use a strategy called temptation building, where you only engage in a guilty pleasure (like a show, podcast, or book) when exercising.


Be your best coach, not worst critic

One of the biggest traps is all-or-nothing thinking. Try not to let a minor setback spiral into giving up altogether. When you lack time or motivation, get in a short activity or have a backup mini workout like a short walk or ten jumping jacks. Again, some physical activity is better than none.

Also, be ready for the voice inside your head. Negative self-talk is very common but rarely productive. When you catch yourself being critical, pause and treat yourself with compassion. Try talking to yourself the same way you’d advise a friend in the same situation. It might feel silly at first, but studies show this self-distaining strategy works!

Ready to get moving?

Physical activity doesn’t have to be daunting or a punishment. By understanding the benefits, choosing enjoyable activities, and approaching exercise with a positive mindset, you can create a sustainable habit that enhances your mental well-being.

One final tip. When it comes to exercise, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers like steps, heart rate, or pace. Don’t forget to pay attention to how you feel before and after exercise. If you notice a mood or energy boost, remind yourself of this positive impact next time you lack motivation.

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