Exercise outside, find a workout buddy and other ways to get more mental health benefits from your fitness routine

Three women running together.
Exercising with friends is one way to give your workouts a mental health boost. (Getty Images)

You might feel sweaty, breathless and exhausted after a workout — but chances are that burst of activity has also left you feeling pretty great too. Beyond building muscle, burning calories, improving flexibility and all the other physical benefits associated with exercise, working out also has a profound effect on your mental health thanks to the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endorphins that can help reduce stress, improve your mood (and sleep!) and contribute to a host of other positives for your overall well-being.

In short: Exercise is a win-win for your body and mind. But if you want to make your workouts even more impactful on your mental health, read on to see what tweaks experts recommend. From getting a running buddy to swapping the gym for the great outdoors, here are ways to make your fitness routine even more feel-good.

Dr. Ulrick Vieux, a sports psychiatrist at Hackensack Meridian Health, tells Yahoo Life that in order to get the most mental health benefit from your workout, you need to practice mindfulness, which is the act of mentally staying in the present moment. “When you're not living in the moment and you are concerned about the future, your cortisol is increased and your anxiety is increased,” he explains, noting that over time this kind of stress can increase the likelihood of developing chronic conditions like hypertension.

One way to practice mindfulness during exercise is by taking a walk, which most people are able to do for exercise, Vieux says. He recommends making time for 150 minutes of exercise a week (which is also the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation); this can include walking, and those 150 minutes can be broken up in any way that fits into your schedule. On your walk, you can practice staying in the moment by taking in your surroundings and focusing on the feelings and sensations you’re experiencing — as opposed to the long to-do list that may be waiting for you back home.

People who have bonds with other people tend to be happier, according to research — and if you want a thriving social life, you need to cultivate it. If you find yourself constantly shifting plans with friends to sneak in a workout, why not combine your social time with some movement? “One way to help motivate people to be consistent with exercise is to find a walking group,” Vieux says. “Or, if you’re going to meet up with a good friend, why not ask them to walk together?”

While walking makes it easy to catch up and get in your steps, you can mix workouts with socializing in other ways. Maybe instead of grabbing dinner with a friend, you hit up a yoga class together and then chat over post-class smoothies.

If you don’t have many friends who want to be active, Rachel Goldberg, a Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family therapist with a background in personal training, tells Yahoo Life that seeking out individuals who want to exercise together can also be rewarding. “A workout partner or group setting fosters a feeling of inclusion and shared interests that you might not experience with other friends or family,” she explains. Finding a group to work out with may mean chatting with the regulars in a fitness class or using the internet to find meetup groups around exercise.

Research has credited yoga with a number of mental health benefits, from reduced stress and anxiety to improved mood, sleep quality and overall well-being.

If you’re a regular yogi who wants to try something new, hot yoga has specifically been shown to have a positive impact on individuals with depression. Plus, you’ll get the added bonus of greater flexibility thanks to your muscles being warmed in advance from the heat.

Exercise doesn’t have to be relaxing to benefit your mental health. Goldberg points to research that has found that higher-intensity workouts can be more effective in alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression, noting that “introducing high-intensity exercise two or three times a week” can improve your mental health.

You don’t have to do burpees or tuck jumps in order for a workout to count as high-intensity, however. It can be as simple as taking the exercise you’re already doing to the next level, such as “accelerating on a recumbent bike to elevate your heart rate through intervals,” she says.

Multiple studies have found benefits to spending time in nature, from a reduction in stress to a decrease in negative feelings. Just spending time in green spaces, like a park, has also been shown to have physical benefits, such as slowing down the aging process.

“Exercising outdoors, such as jogging, biking or walking, is a great way to stimulate the body by bringing in fresh air, vitamin D from the sun and observing changes in scenery,” Bradley Donohue, a clinical sports psychologist and distinguished professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells Yahoo Life. “These factors help to shape a positive mindset and inspire effort to engage in moderately intense physical activity that we know is critical to healthy living.”