There are many strategies and techniques to get an edge over your opponents when improving your poker game. From studying game theory optimal (GTO) strategies to analysing opponent tendencies, you can focus on many aspects to help your technical game. 

Everyone who plays with regularity also knows that poker requires the following skills:

  • A sharp mind
  • An unwavering concentration
  • An ability to read and react to your opponents in real time.

Mental toughness and emotional control are crucial overarching mental game traits for winning players.

Like the tactical side of the game, there are also many ways to strengthen your mental game. Many players focus solely on mental game training techniques, like visualisation or mindfulness.

But physical exercise can play a powerful role in improving a player's mental game. A growing body of research supports that physical activity can enhance cognitive function, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve decision-making abilities. 

These functions are all critical components of a winning poker mindset.

So, if you want to take your poker game to the next level, it's time to incorporate physical exercise into your training routine. 

Whether you're a seasoned pro or just starting, read on to discover how physical exercise can improve your mental game and success at the tables.

Physical Exercise and Mental Health

The benefits of physical exercise on the brain and mental health are well-documented. Exercise reduces stress and anxiety, improves mood, and enhances cognitive function. When we exercise, our brains release endorphins. These natural mood boosters help reduce stress and improve our overall mental health.

One study in particular that examined the relationship between mental health and physical activity is called The HUNT Cohort study. It’s a large population-based study conducted in three waves between 1984 and 2008 in Norway with thousands of participants. It offers an incredible glimpse into the role of exercise on mental health.

Here are a few of the specific findings that are particularly relevant to poker players:

  1. The study found that physical exercise is associated with better mental health outcomes. Overall, people who reported higher levels of physical activity had lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. Interestingly, the relationship between exercise and mental health was stronger in women than men.
  2. They also found that regular exercise is crucial for maintaining mental health over time. People who regularly exercised (at least once per week) had lower levels of depression and anxiety at follow-up five years later than inactive people. The relationship between exercise and mental health was stronger for people who maintained regular exercise over time.
  3. Researchers also looked at the type and intensity of exercise to see if it was critical for mental health outcomes. Both moderate and vigorous physical exercise resulted in lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, but not light exercise. The relationship between exercise and mental health was stronger for people who engaged in either team sports or aerobic exercise.
  4. Another finding that may be particularly interesting to poker players is that sedentary behaviour, developed worse mental health outcomes. They found that prolonged sitting resulted in higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, independent of physical exercise levels. So, even if you exercise regularly, long periods of sitting can still negatively affect your mental well-being.

Poker Player

Overall, the HUNT cohort studies show that regular moderate to vigorous physical aerobic exercise (or participation in team sports) is beneficial for depression, anxiety, and stress in general. It also stressed that you should avoid prolonged sitting. 

Physical Exercise and Improved Brain Function

A few years ago, the Journal of Neuroscience published an extensive review summarising the existing research on the effects of exercise on various brain processes. These findings included attention, working memory, and cognitive control.

The review analysed a total of 83 studies and included both experimental studies and observational studies. The studies included a wide range of populations, including healthy adults, older adults, children, and people with cognitive impairments (but sadly, no poker players).

The review found that exercise had a positive impact on cognitive function, particularly in the areas of attention, working memory, and cognitive control. 

Older adults, people with cognitive impairments and those with higher-intensity exercise showed the most gains. 

Exercise may improve cognitive function in various ways, including increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain. This process promotes the growth of new brain cells and synapses, reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.

Overall, the study provides strong evidence that exercise can improve cognitive function, particularly in the areas of attention, working memory, and cognitive control. 

There is also enough evidence to conclude that exercise can effectively maintain cognitive function across the lifespan.

Physical Exercise and Improved Poker

There is limited research on the role that exercise can play specifically for poker players. But many of the earlier findings in this article are likely relevant to poker players. We all know that while poker is fun, it can also be quite stressful

Financial pressures and the ups and downs of winning and losing can contribute to stress, anxiety and depression. Incorporating exercise into your routine can be a beneficial strategy for managing negative moods.

  • Exercise can improve cognitive function and mental alertness. These are essential when staying focused and making strategic decisions during long session.. 
  • Exercise can also indirectly impact mood by promoting better sleep, a necessity for peak poker performance. 
  • Finally, endurance and stamina are essential to long-term success, and regular exercise has an important role to play in those.  

The benefits of exercise for poker performance are also significant. Exercise can improve focus and concentration, crucial skills for any successful poker player. 

Regular exercise can enhance decision-making and problem-solving abilities, two key components of a winning poker mindset. 

And, of course, physical fitness is crucial for endurance and stamina during long poker sessions.

Incorporating Exercise into a Busy Poker Schedule

While the research is clear that exercise is helpful in many ways, it can be challenging to work regular exercise into an already packed schedule.

To reap the benefits, here are a few ideas you can try:

  • Schedule Exercise Sessions: One efficient strategy for overcoming the barrier of lack of time is to schedule exercise sessions into your daily routine. Set aside time each day for physical activity and treat it as an essential part of your schedule.
  • Find a Workout Partner: Another effective strategy is finding a workout partner to keep you accountable and motivated. This person can be a fellow poker player or friend who shares your interest in physical activity.
  • Work with a Personal Trainer: Working with a personal trainer can be an excellent way to develop a safe and effective exercise plan. This solution is especially applicable when dealing with injuries or other physical limitations.
  • Try Short, High-Intensity Workouts: Short, high-intensity workouts can be a successful way to get a workout in when short on time. These workouts can be as short as 10-15 minutes. But they provide a challenging and effective workout to improve overall physical fitness.
  • Incorporate Exercise into Your Daily Routine: Incorporating physical activity into your daily routine is another workable strategy. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator (lift), or walk or bike to the poker room instead of driving.

Physical exercise can play a powerful role in improving your mental game and overall performance at the table. You can become more successful and resilient at the table by improving mental health, enhancing focus and concentration, and supporting overall physical fitness.

So, if you' want to take your game to the next level, start incorporating regular physical exercise into your routine. You’ll reap the benefits for both your mental and physical health.

Dr. Tricia Cardner is the author of Positive Poker, Peak Poker Performance and co-author of Purposeful Practice for Poker. She podcasts at Poker on The Mind with her co-host Gareth James. You can find her at where she teaches poker players the most effective psychological strategies for optimal poker performance.