How Exercise Can Help You Deal With Anxiety
Exercise can be a magic elixir when it comes to your mental outlook. Just note how well you feel immediately following a workout. Studies have shown exercise can boost mood, alleviate symptoms of depression, and improve memory.
And — perhaps most relevant to the times we’re living in — exercise can also help you manage anxiety. Here’s how.
How Exercise Helps Reduce Anxiety
If you tell a doctor that you’re feeling chronically anxious, chances are their first recommendation — even before therapy or medication — will be to get moving. “I prescribe exercise to my patients all the time,” says Sean Paul, M.D., a psychiatrist in Sarasota, Florida.
That’s because, when we exercise, our brains release chemicals that help the body combat stress. Those include:
- Endorphins. Also known as “the body’s built-in happy pills,” says Nicole Lombardo, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a doctor of physical therapy in San Jose, California. These natural chemicals activate opioid receptors in the brain, functioning as natural painkillers.
- Serotonin. This neurotransmitter is a natural mood-booster. Several types of antidepressant medications work by helping the brain retain serotonin.
- Norepinephrine. Another neurotransmitter which helps the brain and body process and respond to stressors.
Exercise can also:
- Help reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that contributes to anxiety (not to mention the retention of body fat).
- Promote healthy blood pressure and resting heart rate, which can help ease anxiety, Lombardo says.
- Help improve the quality of your sleep, which is associated with improved mood.
Aside from its neurochemical aspects, exercise can be empowering, which can then foster a sense of security and calm. “Exercising regularly gives you something that anxiety takes away, and that is a sense of control,” says Chris Falcon, NASM-CPT, a certified personal trainer in Chicago.
What Exercises Are Best for Anxiety?
Experts are pretty much unanimous that one type of exercise is best. “Aerobic exercise, aerobic exercise, aerobic exercise — anything that gets your heart rate up,” says Sarita Metzger, M.D., M.P.H., a psychiatrist in Philadelphia.
That doesn’t mean you have to start training for a 10k to realize its benefits. “What is important is that this has to be an activity that you will actually do. A lot of us have aspirations of running marathons or spending hours weightlifting in the gym. We can’t forget that good ol’ brisk walking, gardening, cleaning the home with extra elbow grease can also increase the heart rate.”
If running is something you enjoy and can do safely, it can have particular benefits for anxiety. Many runners say the experience can feel similar to meditation.
“Running offers an opportunity to be alone with your thoughts and reframe ruminations,” says Lindsay Brancato, PsyD, a psychologist in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“It gives us a more immediate focus on the here and now, and can be grounding. We focus on small goals or the environment around us, which can take us away from big-picture thinking, as well as provide positive feedback.”
3. HIIT, et al
On the flipside, you might find it satisfying to literally attack your jitters. “One way to calm the fight-or-flight response is to give the body what it wants,” says Elizabeth Brokamp, M.A., E.D.M., L.P.C., a therapist in Burke, Virginia. While running can handle flight, “Fitness boot camps, martial arts, and high-intensity cardio workouts can feel an awful lot like fight.”
For a non-aerobic option, there is yoga. Stretching can be centering and calming. “Because we hold stress and anxiety in our bodies, some form of stretching or yoga — like yin yoga — can help us by teaching our bodies to let go of stress,” adds Brancato.
How Long Does It Take for Exercise to Help Ease Anxiety?
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, just five minutes of aerobic activity can have anti-anxiety effects. A Dutch study published in the journal Preventive Medicine arrived at a similar conclusion, showing those who exercised at least 60 minutes a week were less anxious and depressed.
Some doctors suggest 30 to 45 minutes of exercise, three to four times a week. But no matter how much you do, it’s likely your mood will improve fast.
“Exercise will not make all your problems go away, but you are guaranteed to feel better to some degree,” says Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD, a psychologist in Los Angeles. “And it can enhance your creativity — the brain is an organ that functions better when stimulated — to give you a fresh perspective on handling issues.”
- The Acute Relationships Between Affect, Physical Feeling States, and Physical Activity in Daily Life: A Review of Current Evidence www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688389
- The Effect of Acute Exercise on Encoding and Consolidation of Long-Term Memory journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jsep/40/6/article-p336.xml
- Relationship Between Sleep Quality and Mood: Ecological Momentary Assessment Study mental.jmir.org/2019/3/e12613
- Effects of acute treadmill running at different intensities on activities of serotonin and corticotropin-releasing factor neurons, and anxiety- and depressive-like behaviors in rats www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166432815302679
- Exercise for Stress and Anxiety, Anxiety and Depression Association of America adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety/exercise-stress-and-anxiety
Regular exercise, anxiety, depression and personality:
A population-based study web4.uwindsor.ca/users/f/fsirois/personality.nsf/0/c6247d71a3e97a4485257261005da15b/%24FILE/Moor_PM_2006.pdf