How does exercise help anxiety

The physical benefits of exercise — improving physical condition and fighting disease — have long been established, and physicians always encourage staying physically active.

Exercise is also conRunnerssidered vital for maintaining mental fitness, and it can reduce stress. Studies show that it is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate.

When stress affects the brain, with its many nerve connections, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. Or, if your body feels better, so does your mind. Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins — chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers — and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.

Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.

Relationship of Exercise to Anxiety Disorders

Stress and anxiety are a normal part of life, but anxiety disorders, which affect 40 million adults, are the most common psychiatric illnesses in the U.S. The benefits of exercise may well extend beyond stress relief to improving anxiety and related disorders.

Psychologists studying how exercise relieves anxiety and depression suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout. Some studies show that exercise can work quickly to elevate depressed mood in many people. Although the effects may be temporary, they demonstrate that a brisk walk or other simple activity can deliver several hours of relief, similar to taking an aspirin for a headache.

Science has also provided some evidence that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. Exercise may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress. In one study, researchers found that those who got regular vigorous exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.

Exercise as Part of Therapy

According to some studies, regular exercise works as well as medication for some people to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and the effects can be long lasting. One vigorous exercise session can help alleviate symptoms for hours, and a regular schedule may significantly reduce them over time.

Although exercise has a positive effect for most people, some recent studies show that for some, exercise may not have a positive effect on anxiety or depression or may not make a strong impact on long-term mental health.

Like all forms of therapy, the effect can vary: Some people may respond positively, others may find it doesn’t improve their mood much, and some may experience only a modest short-term benefit. Nonetheless, researchers say that the beneficial effects of exercise on physical health are not in dispute, and people should be encouraged to stay physically active.

Resources – ADAA Member Experts

Read all about it: Exercise for Mood and Anxiety, Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being, by Michael W. Otto, PhD, and Jasper A.J. Smits, PhD (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Fitness Tips: Stay Healthy, Manage Stress

The most recent federal guidelines for adults recommend at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity physical activity (e.g. brisk walking) each week, 1¼ hours of a vigorous-intensity activity (such as jogging or swimming laps), or a combination of the two.

If you have an exercise program already, keep up the good work. If not, here are tips to get you started.

  • 5 X 30: Jog, walk, bike, or dance three to five times a week for 30 minutes.
  • Set small daily goals and aim for daily consistency rather than perfect workouts. It’s better to walk every day for 15-20 minutes than to wait until the weekend for a three-hour fitness marathon. Lots of scientific data suggests that frequency is most important.  
  • Find forms of exercise that are fun or enjoyable. Extroverted people often like classes and group activities. People who are more introverted often prefer solo pursuits.
  • Distract yourself with an iPod or other portable media player to download audiobooks, podcasts, or music. Many people find it’s more fun to exercise while listening to something they enjoy.
  • Recruit an “exercise buddy.” It’s often easier to stick to your exercise routine when you have to stay committed to a friend, partner, or colleague.
  • Be patient when you start a new exercise program. Most sedentary people require about four to eight weeks to feel coordinated and sufficiently in shape so that exercise feels easier.

Cold Weather Exercise

Learn more about exercising in cold weather.

  • Dress in layers. Exercise in layers that you can remove as you start to sweat and put back on as needed. 
  • Protect your hands, feet, and ears. Make sure your extremities aren warm and wear gloves, socks, and headbands to prevent frostbite. 
  • Pay attention to weather conditions and wind chill. Rain and wind can make you even more vulnerable to the effects of the cold. If the temperature is below zero degrees and the wind chill is extreme, consider taking a break or finding an indoor activity. 
  • Choose appropriate gear. It gets dark earlier in the winter, so be sure to wear reflective clothing. Wear shoes with enough traction to prevent falls in snow or ice. 
  • Remember sunscreen. It’s just as easy to get burned in the winter as in summer, so don’t forget the SPF. 
  • Head into the wind. Plan your route so the wind is at your back toward the end of your workout to prevent getting a chill after working up a sweat. 
  • Drink plenty of fluids. It can be harder to notice the symptoms of dehydration in cold weather, so drink fluids before, during, and after a workout, even if you’re not thirsty. 
  • Know the signs of frostbite and hypothermia. Know the signs and get help immediately to prevent frostbite and hypothermia. 


The Vasaloppet, which celebrates its centenary this winter, is the largest series of cross-country ski races in the world, with crowds of racers annually lining up in the woods of central Sweden to whoosh, glide and pant through races ranging in length from 30 kilometers, or almost 19 miles, to the showcase distance of 90K, about 56 miles. Because this kind of endurance event requires abundant health, stamina and training, researchers previously have used data about Vasaloppet racers to study how exercise influences heart health, cancer risks and longevity.

“We use participation in a Vasaloppet as a proxy for a physically active and healthy lifestyle,” said Tomas Deierborg, the director of the experimental medicine department at Lund University and senior author of the new study, who has twice completed the 90K race.

To start, he and his colleagues gathered finishing times and other information for 197,685 Swedish men and women who participated in one of the races between 1989 and 2010. They then crosschecked this information with data from a Swedish national registry of patients, looking for diagnoses of clinical anxiety disorder among the racers in the following 10 to 20 years. For comparison, they also checked anxiety diagnoses during the same time period for 197,684 of their randomly selected fellow citizens who had not participated in the race and were generally considered relatively inactive.

The skiers, the researchers found, proved to be considerably calmer over the decades after their race than the other Swedes, with more than 50 percent less risk of developing clinical anxiety. These good spirits tended to prevail among male and female skiers of almost any age — except, interestingly, the fastest female racers. The top female finishers from each year tended to be more likely afterward to develop anxiety disorders than other racers, although their risk overall remained lower than for women of the same age in the control group.

These results indicate “the link between exercise and reduced anxiety is strong,” said Dr. Lena Brundin, a lead investigator of neurodegenerative diseases at the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., who was another author on the study.

How does exercise help people who struggle with anxiety? By understanding the relationship between anxiety and exercise, you can create a workout plan that helps relieve anxiety symptoms.

Yes, exercise can help with symptoms of anxiety. Overwhelming stress and persistent negative thoughts contribute to feelings of anxiety. Rumination, which involves constant overthinking about unknown events or scenarios, is also a primary symptom of anxiety.

As rumination and anxiety become consistent parts of someone’s thought process, that person can develop an anxiety disorder. The formation of this type of mental condition can occur genetically or through life experiences. Chemical imbalances cause anxiety and these disparities can result in worsening moods and depressive states.

Exercising can counter the chemical imbalance by producing endorphins, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Endorphins interact with receptors in the brain and create a euphoric high. The endorphins produced through exercise provide temporary relief from mental struggles.

Not only does physical activity release stress and produce endorphins, but it also increases a person’s self-confidence. Completing workouts results in feelings of accomplishment and improved physical appearance, both of which can also boost a person’s mood and distract them from negative thoughts.

There are other benefits to regular exercise. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Studies show that it is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function.”

Article at a Glance:

  • Exercise can be a healthy coping mechanism for symptoms of anxiety Exercise is a healthy way to diminish the effects of anxiety.
  • Exercising produces endorphins that create a “feel good” effect
  • There is no one best form of exercise for anxiety. Individuals should find a type of physical activity they enjoy

Exercise Regimens to Relieve Anxiety Symptoms

Currently, there is no best form of exercise for depression and anxiety symptoms. Each person responds differently to various activities.

Some people may receive greater mental boosts from cardiovascular workouts. Others will benefit more from weightlifting or prefer team sports. People wishing to utilize exercise for stress and anxiety reduction should experiment with their workout schedule to find the most effective strategy.

If you do not have an exercise regimen or want to overhaul your current approach, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) website lists anxiety-reducing tips for each type of workout.

Cardiovascular Exercise and Anxiety

According to researchers at Harvard University, regular aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, dancing) decreases the levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Daily physical activity also helps people fall asleep at regular times and achieve more restful sleep, which causes decreased stress. Exercise also combats negative thoughts and emotions by improving physical appearance and health.

“As your waistline shrinks and your strength and stamina increase, your self-image will improve,” the Harvard University website states. “You’ll earn a sense of mastery and control, of pride and self-confidence. Your renewed vigor and energy will help you succeed in many tasks, and the discipline of regular exercise will help you achieve other important lifestyle goals.”

The ADAA recommends performing a cardio activity three to five times per week for at least 30 minutes. Doing so consistently decreases stress and prevents multi-day anxiety buildups.

For individuals who get anxious or overwhelmed thinking about beginning an exercise routine for the first time: Cardio workouts require the least structure and planning. People can jog or bicycle with another person or on their own. Additionally, cardio routines there isn’t a need for a crowded gym unless running indoors is the only option. Aerobic exercise can be done indoors or outdoors and in any specific setting, such as a trail, neighborhood or gym, which makes cardio routines more accommodating than other forms of fitness that require a specific location.

Weightlifting and Anxiety

Not everyone enjoys cardio workouts, and people should prioritize doing enjoyable activities rather than forcing themselves into routines they dislike. Preventing fitness from feeling like a chore helps people maintain consistent daily activity.

For some, weightlifting is the preferred workout, and it can diminish anxiousness and depression. The primary reward is muscle gain, which helps people’s self-confidence. However, weightlifting exerts the same stress hormones as jogging and produces the same mood-boosting chemical, endorphin. So, people who choose to lift weights instead of jogging are not missing out on any chemical benefits.

The ADAA suggests focusing on daily physical activity, even in small amounts, rather than one or two long weekly workouts. That means five or six trips to the gym each week for 30 minutes to an hour rather than packing everything into less-frequent, two- or three-hour sessions. While the physical benefits might be the same, daily exercise results in consistent endorphin production and stress exertion rather than allowing a buildup of anxiousness throughout the week.

Team-Sports Exercise and Anxiety

Individual or small-group exercises like cardio and weightlifting may work for some but not for others. Different personality types may crave more engaging and interactive activities, such as team sports. Joining a softball league or playing pickup basketball with friends can exert energy, reduce stress, release endorphins, improve physical health and appease a necessity for social interaction.

People that have a mental condition associated with how others perceive them — such as social anxiety — may desire interaction to diminish the effects of their anxiety. Even an activity as simple as playing football and being part of a team-oriented recreation or competition can subside loneliness and other negative emotions.

If you live with an anxiety disorder, consider adding physical activity to your schedule. A revamped, healthier lifestyle can bring numerous health benefits and decrease your stress levels.

If you struggle with anxiety disorder and use drugs or alcohol to cope, The Recovery Village can help. Call  888.374.5434 today to speak to one of our intake coordinators to discuss treatment options.

Thomas Christiansen

Editor – Thomas Christiansen

With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.

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