Take the Resilience Quiz

Joy Lab and Natural Mental Health are community-supported. When you buy through the links below, we may earn a commission. That support helps keep the Joy Lab podcast free for all!

Five Exercise Musts for Natural Mental Health | People in gym working out

Five Exercise Musts for Natural Mental Health

movement/exercise May 29, 2018

Stuck in an exercise rut? Want to boost your mood?

If your answer is an exhausted "Yes" to both of those questions, then read on for five simple strategies you can integrate into your day or week to build an exercise habit and support your mood.

Note: Don't feel pressure to integrate all of the strategies at once. Start with one the first week, then add another the next week or when you feel confident. Continue adding strategies until all five are part of your typical day/week.

1. Move More

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a weekly minimum activity of:

  • At least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week OR 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week.
  • Two days per week (minimum) of muscle-strengthening activity.  

Unfortunately, only 1 in 5 adults meets these standards. This may be partly because these "rules" can feel overwhelming. The important thing to remember is that the point is to move more. Any movement above and beyond sitting and watching TV burns calories, raises your metabolism, and does good things for your brain. Move any way you like. Just move.

Additionally, many activities not usually deemed exercise can still bring the significant benefits of movement. Below are some common physical activities and their MET measurements. MET stands for Metabolic Equivalent of Task and is a way of measuring how much energy is used by physical activities. For comparison, sitting quietly uses 1 MET.

  • Sex (1.3-2.8 METs)
  • Strolling (2-3 METs)
  • Cooking (2-3 METs)
  • Housecleaning (3-4 METs)
  • Fishing (3-4 METs)
  • Leisure biking (3-6 METs)
  • Lawn mowing/Yard work (4-6 METs)
  • Gardening (4-6 METs)
  • Dancing (5-7 METs)
  • Hiking (6-8 METs)

Find more activities and METs here

2. Move More Naturally

The same daily chunk of time dedicated to a workout can help you stay committed to your plan. However, you may have days when carving out time or scheduling with such consistency is impossible. If that's the case (or even if it's not), be sure to integrate more natural movement into your day. Some ideas:   

  • Stand up at least 30 times per day (every 15-20 minutes). Set a timer if you need to.
  • If you sit for long periods during your workday, try shifting your position often. Try sitting on an exercise ball, use a simple upright chair without armrests, or try a stool without a back.
  • Do a couple of slow squats before you sit down.
  • Organize your office so that you have to get up for things like the phone, printer, or files. You can also place your coffee on a shelf that requires to to stand up to take sip (coffee and a workout!).
  • At home, put away your TV remote so that you have to get up to change the channel.  

3. Walk More

Walking is the ideal movement. Here are some simple ideas to incorporate more walking into your day:

  • Go down the hall to speak with a coworker instead of using the phone or email.
  • Take the stairs rather than an elevator.
  • Park your car further away from your destination.
  • Take a 10-minute stroll after meals.
  • If you are motivated by goals or data, get a pedometer.
    • Aim for 2,000 steps per day at first, then 5,000 steps, and gradually work up to 10,000 steps per day.
    • If minutes are easier to track, just start with 10 minutes and gradually increase to 45 minutes most days of the week.
    • Remember that you don’t have to do all of your walking at once. It’s the amount over the course of the day that counts.
  • Find a walking buddy. The two most important ways to guarantee success are (a) support and (b) enjoying what you are doing. Walking and talking with a friend will help ensure that you stick with it.

4. Move Quick: HIIT

If you’re in fight or flight stress mode, your body is preparing you for brief, intense bursts of activity, followed by periods of recovery. We are wired for this, and as children we did it all the time. Consider adding occasional brief, intense bursts of movement to your weekly routine (as with any new exercise routine, check with your doctor first). This practice has many benefits. For instance, it can:

  • Improve weight loss, especially for hard-to-lose abdominal weight.1,2 
  • Raise your metabolic rate for 24-48 hours, burning calories long after you’ve exercised.
  • Improve hormone levels, including cortisol, testosterone, and human growth hormone.3
  • Protect against adult onset diabetes.4 (source).
  • Boost energy, focus, and performance.
  • Help slow the aging process.

How to move quick with high intensity interval training:

  • Choose any activity you like that can be done intensely in brief spurts (20-30 seconds is enough). Good options include walking or running, biking, rowing, using a treadmill or elliptical trainer, swimming, calisthenics, or dancing. Get creative.
  • Start slowly—you can build the intensity as you become more fit. When you’re first starting out just make the “bursts” a little faster and harder than your usual pace.
  • Do this just once or twice a week—you will get all the benefits from just two 10-15 minute sessions per week.
  • Begin with 2-3 minutes of warm-up, doing your chosen movement at a comfortable pace.
  • Then go faster and harder for 20-30 seconds. If you’re just starting out, simply pick up the pace a bit. As you progress, you can gradually push yourself harder until you go as fast as you possibly can, but just for 20-30 seconds. That’s all you need.
  • Slow down to a recovery pace, similar to your warm-up pace. Give yourself 1-2 minutes for recovery.
  • Repeat with another 20-30 second burst of activity, followed by 1-2 minutes of recovery. Do this for 3-4 cycles at first, gradually working up to 6-8 burst/recovery cycles.
  • This entire workout takes only 10-15 minutes, but the effects will last for days. Do this once or twice per week and you will boost your metabolism, sharpen your mind, and slow the aging process.

5. Move Weights

Keep yourself strong with resistance training and build strength by adding more resistance over time. You can do this in several ways: yoga, resistance bands, weight machines, free weights, or using the weight of your own body. Even some gardening chores count as resistance training if they involve things like lifting, digging, or hauling. Some tips:

  • Check with your physician for guidance and perhaps a fitness trainer if you are new to resistance training, A good trainer can help you choose the best exercises and show you proper technique to avoid injury.
  • Start slowly, with a low amount of resistance and increase the resistance gradually.
  • Include all the major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms.
  • Use enough resistance that it is hard to do more than 8-12 repetitions without assistance. One set for each exercise is enough.
  • If you want greater intensity or to build your strength more quickly, make the movements slower. Count to ten as you move the weights away from you, and again as you bring them back down. Use as much weight as you can lift for only 3-6 repetitions.
  • If you do a total body resistance workout using your own body weight, you can do it up to three times per week.
  • If you use free weights or weight machines with 8-12 reps, then twice a week is sufficient.
  • If you do the slow movement with maximal weights (3-6 reps) limit it to once per week.



  1. Heydari, M., Freund, J., & Boutcher, S. H. (2012). The effect of high-intensity intermittent exercise on body composition of overweight young males. Journal of Obesityhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2012/480467
  2. Boutcher, S. (2011). High-intensity intermittent exercise and fat loss. Journal of Obesity. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2011/868305
  3. Wahl, P. 2013. Hormonal and metabolic responses to high intensity interval training. Journal of Sports Medicine and Doping Studies, 3(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.4172/2161-0673.1000e132
  4. Gillen, J. B., Little, J. P., Punthakee, Z., Tarnopolsky, M. A., Riddell, M. C., & Gibala, M. J. (2012). Acute high-intensity interval exercise reduces the postprandial glucose response and prevalence of hyperglycaemia in patients with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes, Obesity & Metabolism, 14(6), 575-577. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1463-1326.2012.01564.x


High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT for Mental Health

If you’re in fight or flight stress mode, your body is preparing you for brief, intense bursts of activity, followed by periods of recovery. We are wired for this, and as children we did it all the time. Consider adding occasional brief, intense bursts of movement to your weekly routine. This practice has many benefits. Read more.




Tired All the Time? Meet The Three Energy Thieves

May 29, 2024

Resilient Mental Health: Consider Brain Chemistry

May 21, 2024

Resilience Training and Our Roots of Resilience Series

Apr 17, 2024


Discover your Resilience Type with the Resilience Quiz

After completing the quiz, you can get your free tailored mini-course, full of integrative practices and supplement ideas to help you reclaim your most resilient self.

Learn more

Helpful support delivered right to your inbox.

We’ll make your journey to resilience easier. Join our weekly newsletter for integrative tools to help you build on your strengths.

We are spam-free!


This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice and is not a replacement for advice and treatment from a medical professional. Consult your doctor or other qualified health professional before beginning any diet change, supplement, or lifestyle program. See our terms for more information.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call the NAMI HelpLine: 1-800-950-6264 available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., ET. OR text "HelpLine" to 62640 or email NAMI at [email protected]. Visit NAMI for more. You can also call or text SAMHSA at 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.