Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/28/2022
Your mental health is important. Arguably, it’s as important as your physical health.
Keeping your mental health in check is a lot like keeping your physical health in check, too, and while some wall sits and burpees aren’t going to do a lot for your brain, regular brain exercises designed to keep your mental clarity and fortitude at peak levels are just the activities you need.
There are many apps, programs, professional-led therapies and other products out there espousing benefits to your mental health, but it’s important to be able to separate the good branding and sales pitches from tried and true tactics and methods.
We’re here to help you separate the good from the unproven. But first, it’s important to understand what this extra mental effort is all for.
Mental health is a somewhat complicated collection of things, and unlike your physical health, most of it can’t be translated into numbers and percentiles to give you a good idea of where you stand.
If you feel generally happy, stable and in control most of the time, your mental health is probably pretty good. But there’s more to it than how you feel.
One of the things that affects your mental health is brain chemistry, and brain chemistry is about balance, especially when it comes to things like neurotransmitters.
We don’t fully understand the relationship between conditions like depression and anxiety and serotonin (specifically, whether activity on one side can trigger problems with the other), but they are related.
In the big picture, mental health conditions and mood disorders like depression and anxiety affect your thoughts, and when those thoughts are affected, they can affect your ability to perform at work, function in relationships and enjoy or be present for experiences.
Preserving your mental health is really just about addressing signs of mood disorders and other mental illnesses before they have serious or long lasting impacts on your quality of life.
In other words, mental health isn’t just about fixing problems, it’s about, well, the same things your physical health is about: regular exercise moderation, and putting forth the effort to be proactive, even when everything feels good.
Taking care of your mental health is really possible. We’ll get into the details of how to do this in a moment, but first, let’s explore the mental health benefits of activities.
The first thing you need to know is that mental health activities can benefit your mind and body alike. According to the NIMH, caring for your own mental health can help you manage stress, increase your physical energy level and help lower your risk of physical illness.
In fact, many of the things that count as good for your mental health are physical activities, like getting sleep, exercising regularly, eating healthy foods and staying hydrated.
This is just a brief overview — while a healthcare professional can help you to target certain areas that may yield more benefits for you personally, many of these things are considered essential to the proper function of your mind.
It doesn’t take much, either. The NIMH says just 30 minutes a day of walking can boost mood, and a well balanced diet can give you energy for focus throughout the day, eliminating both those cognitive issues that come with uneven energy levels, and the stress that results when you’re not able to perform as well as you want to.
Mental health activities are sort of a wide, all-encompassing group of things. If leisurely activities like watching a movie give you a bit of stress or anxiety relief, for instance, there’s no arguing that seeing a movie could be considered a mental health activity for you.
If you like playing with legos, spending time with the kids or heading to the golf course, those are all great ways to take yourself out of the stressful world and into the spaces with meaning, joy, and even some exercise.
In the spirit of that, consider the following seven activities for your mental health more of a guideline list than a prescription — the proven benefits of the following activities are a great place to start building your own mental health activities roster to take better care of yourself.
There’s something wonderfully therapeutic about collecting your ideas, thoughts, worries and troubles in writing.
It’s been shown that writing things down helps with things like practicing gratitude, but in the absence of a therapist, you can also write down your concerns to work through them in the same way.
There are many guided versions of this available as well — take a look at some search results or ask a mental health professional for suggestions, if you’re not sure where to start.
According to the NIMH, 30 minutes of daily walking is really all you need to boost clarity and focus — you can even break this exercise up throughout the day if you’ve only got five minutes here or there.
What’s more, some cardio can reduce the feelings of depression, anxiety and stress you’re feeling and have been shown to improve mood.
So, if you’re feeling like you’re getting to your limit, those five minutes of exercise really might be all you need.
The effects of exercise are important, but so are the effects of what you eat and drink. Water and a balanced diet can also help you improve your focus and balance your moods, which will in turn increase your mental stamina and performance throughout the day.
The NIMH doesn’t say you should drop caffeine, coffee and soft drinks entirely, but limiting them throughout the day can have long term benefits for your mood, stress levels, and focus.
Getting yourself on a good sleep schedule is crucial to your performance, regardless of whether you’re presenting at work or showing up to do the bare minimum as efficiently as possible.
In order to do that (and stay on schedule) you have to start treating your sleep like it matters.
Next to showing up at the right time for work, hitting the hay at the right time is arguably your second-most important calendar item.
Oh, and sleep is associated with lower levels of depressive disorder and anxiety, so you’ll be addressing a problem or preventing a new one by getting shut eye.
Meditation conjures images of Don Draper’s final Mad Men scene, wind chimes and chanting, but in 2022, meditation is really anything that’s a peaceful practice as controlling your breathing.
You don’t need to stress over meditation, because the entire point is to take your own attention away from the things stressing you out.
Consider practices like breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, walking or journaling as meditative experiences, if you don’t feel like crossing your legs.
Whether you’re journaling, meditating or just deep in thought while enjoying a sunset, one of the best things you can do for your mental health is bring gratitude into your life.
Expressing gratitude is about more than saying “thanks” every once in a while; it’s about reminding yourself of all the good, and of all your accomplishments and the people and personal talents that helped you get there.
It’s also a good way to end the day in reflection.
As a final added bonus, writing down gratitude throughout the day becomes a great bumper when you’re having a down day, and need to remember the good things.
Focusing on positivity is a wonderful way to make it the default setting over time.
Self care is about the self, but it’s neither introspective nor isolated. In fact, one of the most important parts of self care is the relationships in your life.
Taking care of yourself also means staying connected with your loved ones. It’s about more than social interaction — being attentive to your friends and family is part of that, because relationships are a two-way street.
Sometimes, they’ll be there for you when you need support and practical help.
But it’s equally important to offer them the same in kind — for their mental health and your own.
The fact is that, as fun, simple and effective as some of these activities may be for boosting or supporting your mental health, addressing mental illness requires more effort and support than what’s represented by that list.
If you’re experiencing side effects from anxiety or symptoms of depression, struggling with symptoms of bipolar disorder or other mood disorders, or just feeling “off,” it may be time to talk to a mental health care provider.
Seeking help may look like talking to a therapist or other mental health professional, but it can start with your healthcare provider, as well.
A mental health professional might prescribe therapy, medication, or a combination of the two, as well as mention some or all of these activities we’ve discussed. They will likely make a referral based on your specific needs, but getting the help you need starts with you being brave enough to talk about what’s troubling you.
Like physical activity, mental activity is crucial to your health. If your mental health is taking a downturn right now, it could be any number of professional, personal, romantic or financial stressors causing you to struggle.
Or it could be something else entirely.
If you’re in the early stages of figuring out what’s going on, feel free to continue exploring with our mental health resources guide.
While educating yourself is a great place to start, ultimately, therapy, medication and other activities for your mental health are the best ways to address mental illness before it causes serious or lasting damage to your life.
We’ve all struggled with bad days, bad news, setbacks and failures. That’s part of life. But whether you’re still struggling to feel normal a week, a month or a year later, it’s time to ask for help now.
Help is available to everyone these days, thanks to telepsychiatry and online counseling. Those resources are available to you, too. The first and hardest step is the first one. Take it, and get the help you deserve today.