Does exercise help anxiety

Chances are good that you, or someone you know, is dealing with anxiety. One in five Americans over 18, and one in three teenagers 13 to 18, reported having a chronic anxiety disorder during the past year. And when I talk to college students, they’re not at all surprised that a whopping 63% of students felt tremendous anxiety during their freshman year, according to a report by the National College Health Association.

The toll of anxiety can be high: it increases a person’s risk for other psychiatric disorders like depression, and can contribute to diabetes and cardiovascular problems. One sobering study shows that people with anxiety tend to be more sedentary and do less intense forms of physical activity, if any. That’s ironic, because lacing up your sneakers and getting out and moving may be the single best nonmedical solution we have for preventing and treating anxiety.

As a psychiatrist who studies the effects of exercise on the brain, I’ve not only seen the science, I’ve witnessed firsthand how physical activity affects my patients. Research shows aerobic exercise is especially helpful. A simple bike ride, dance class, or even a brisk walk can be a powerful tool for those suffering from chronic anxiety. Activities like these also help people who are feeling overly nervous and anxious about an upcoming test, a big presentation, or an important meeting.

How does exercise help ease anxiety?

  • Engaging in exercise diverts you from the very thing you are anxious about.
  • Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious.
  • Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals, including serotonin, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and endocannabinoids.
  • Exercise activates frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function, which helps control the amygdala, our reacting system to real or imagined threats to our survival.
  • Exercising regularly builds up resources that bolster resilience against stormy emotions.

The details

So exactly how much exercise does one need to protect against episodes of anxiety and anxiety disorders? While pinpointing this is not easy, a recent meta-analysis in the journal Anxiety-Depression found that people with anxiety disorders who reported high-level physical activity were better protected against developing anxiety symptoms than those who reported low physical activity. Bottom line: when it comes to treating anxiety, more exercise is better.

If you’re just starting out, don’t despair. Some research also shows that just a single bout of exercise can help ease anxiety when it strikes.

Which type of exercise you choose may not matter greatly. Studies point to the effectiveness of everything from tai chi to high-intensity interval training. People experienced improvement no matter which types of activity they tried. Even general physical activity is helpful. The important thing is to try activities and keep doing them.

To maximize the benefits:

  • Choose something enjoyable so you will do it repeatedly, building resilience.
  • Work toward getting your heart rate up.
  • Work out with a friend or in a group to reap the added benefit of social support.
  • If possible, exercise in nature or green space, which further lowers stress and anxiety.

While scientific studies are important, you don’t need to consult a chart, statistics, or an expert to know how good you feel after working up a sweat. Remember those feelings and use them as motivation to do something physical every day. Time to get up and get moving!

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While exercise is known to have many positive physical effects, it can also do a lot to improve your mental and emotional health as well.

Individuals who participate in regular exercise, whether running, hiking, working with weights in the gym or putting in a session on a rowing machine or other piece of exercise equipment have reported not only feeling the physical benefits of their workout but also feeling less stressed and less anxious.

Though any form of exercise is certainly good for you, there are some that are particularly helpful when it comes to reducing anxiety and improving psychological health.

Yoga

This is the most common form of exercise linked to emotional health and for good reason. The entire concept of yoga is improving the mind-body connection, through stretching and deep breathing techniques. Not only can this be helpful on an immediate basis, it can also have significant long-term effects, helping to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and anger and promoting an enhanced sense of calm.

Tai Chi

This ancient form of exercise from China combines martial art movements with meditative movements similar to those used in yoga. Like yoga, Tai Chi can help to improve the connection between physical and mental health, helping to promote a sense of balance and calm. The major components of Tai Chi, which include mental concentration, physical balance, muscle relaxation and relaxed breathing are all extremely calming and can go a long way toward relieving stress and reducing anxiety.

Running

This is an old exercise standby and it can be a go to type of workout for those looking to improve both their physical and emotional health. The connection to relieving anxiety is not difficult to make, as the act of running helps to stimulate the production of endorphins in the body. These neurotransmitters are responsible for producing a feeling of well-being, which can be extremely helpful in battling anxiety and depression.

Walking

Not everybody is capable of running, but most people can walk for exercise. Regular 30 minute walks have been proven to reduce anxiety and stress and enhance your health, as well. You can walk almost anywhere, but you can also find good walking locations in city parks and state parks. The latter often have easy walking trails in a surrounding of nature, which will reduce your stress and promote a feeling of peace and balance.

Hiking

Another form of movement that can also stimulate the release of endorphins, hiking may be every bit as effective as running when it comes to relieving stress. The added benefit here is getting out and connecting with nature, which can be extremely beneficial in terms of releasing stress and improving your mood. It can help just to change your surroundings and get your mind off of your everyday problems. Even better is when you can share that hike with a companion and increase your sense of well being even more.

Strength training

While most people associate this form of exercise with building muscle, it can also do a lot to improve your emotional health. The benefit here comes from increasing your sense of self worth as you begin to notice the physical effects of your workouts. You’ll see your confidence increase as you not only feel better about yourself but also gain a sense of satisfaction as you rack up positive results. And if you’re feeling better and expending excess energy, you may even be able to sleep better, which can also go a long way toward reducing anxiety.

Dancing

People don’t tend to think of dance as an exercise, but it can have many physical benefits as it helps to workout muscles, get zyour heart pumping and even help you to shed excess weight. At the same time, it can help to improve your emotional health by giving you a sense of accomplishment as well as just providing you with the ability to let loose and have some fun. And because dance can be such a wonderful form of self-expression, it can help you to get in touch with your feelings and let them out in a creative and therapeutic manner. Plus, if you’re doing something you love, you’re more likely to stick with it!

Summary

Of course, there is no guarantee that exercise alone will help you to overcome the effects of anxiety, but it can be a wonderful addition to any treatment approach. Because it has so many positive benefits, there is almost no downside to incorporating exercise into your daily routine. If you want to start feeling less stressed and less anxious, than why not get up and get moving and find out just what regular exercise can do for you.

Scott Murphy is a writer who loves to write articles on various topics such as health, fitness, exercise etc. He has the passion for the sport over 20 years. He is a regular contributor to allrowers.com, a site offering reviews, workouts, industry news and education about the benefits of rowing and regular exercise.

Exercise for Stress and 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 considered 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.

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.

Learn more about anxiety at BetterHelp.com.

How Exercise Eases Anxiety

Anxiety can be overwhelming and cause many physical and emotional side effects. When you can’t stop worrying, you can’t sleep and you may even feel sick to your stomach. While an anxiety disorder should be monitored and treated by a qualified professional, exercise can be part of an effective treatment plan to help manage your anxiety symptoms.

Exercise and Anxiety: What the Research Says

“Exercise won’t cure anxiety or depression, but the physical and psychological benefits can improve the symptoms,” explains Sally R. Connolly, LCSW, a therapist at the Couples Clinic of Louisville in Kentucky. “Research shows that at least 30 minutes of exercise three to five days a week can significantly make a difference.” Some studies have suggested that regular exercise can help alleviate anxiety as much as anxiety medications, and the anxiety-relieving effects of exercise may last longer than those of drugs.

Exercise and Anxiety: Who Benefits

While everyone can reap psychological benefits from exercise, research suggests that people who may see the biggest improvements in anxiety symptoms are those who:

  • Exercise consistently for at least several weeks
  • Are not already physically active
  • Have severe anxiety
  • Do aerobic exercise, such as jogging, swimming, or dancing

Exercise has also been shown to be effective in managing symptoms of depression, which frequently affects people with anxiety disorders.

Exercise and Anxiety: How Exercise Helps

“Anxiety is usually linked to an increased heart rate,” notes Connolly. “Exercise can be very helpful with calming people’s heart rate.”

During exercise, your heart rate shoots up, but over time, as your fitness level improves, your heart begins to work more efficiently. As a result, your resting heart rate between exercise sessions eventually becomes slower. Improved heart and lung function due to regular aerobic activity are often associated with a greater sense of overall well-being, which can help offset feelings of anxiety.

Even short bursts of exercise — just 10 to 15 minutes at a time — can improve your fitness and your mood. Connolly recommends that her patients get a total of 30 minutes of exercise a day, which can be broken into 10-minute blocks if necessary, between six and seven days a week.

Exercise can even help prevent anxiety disorders from beginning in the first place. One study showed that regular exercisers were at a 25 percent reduced risk of depression and anxiety disorders over a five-year period. Not surprisingly, exercise has also been found to improve mental clarity and concentration, both of which may be negatively affected by anxiety. Chemicals released in the brain during exercise may help improve the ability to focus and deal with stressful situations, thereby lessening the risk of anxiety and depression.

Exercise and Anxiety: Anti-Anxiety Workouts

Any exercise can help diminish anxiety, but Connolly says aerobic exercise that really gets your heart rate up will be the most beneficial. Some good aerobic exercises that can help manage anxiety are:

  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Running
  • Brisk walking
  • Tennis
  • Dancing

“Dancing is a great exercise, and it has a lot of other side benefits. And it’s great when you dance with other people,” notes Connolly, since socializing can also boost your mood.

Though not aerobic, yoga can help offset anxiety symptoms. Yoga combines physical movement with meditation and deep breathing to help calm the mind and alleviate worry.

While weight training and other strengthening exercises are important for your overall health, they don’t seem to offer as much anxiety relief as activities that get your heart rate going.

We all know that exercise is good for the body, and now research shows that it’s also good for the mind. In addition to managing your anxiety with a doctor’s help, exercise is a powerful tool you can use to enhance your physical and mental health.

Physical Exercise & Anxiety

  • The benefits of physical activity
  • How much should I exercise?
  • Suggestions for being more physically active
  • Helpful resources
  • Credits
  • Personal experience

Many people think that the mind and body are separate but evidence actually shows that there is a link between being physically active and enjoying positive mental wellbeing. Furthermore, evidence shows that being physically active can protect people against depression and anxiety as it causes chemical changes in the brain which can positively alter mood. It also brings about a sense of greater self-esteem, self-control and the ability to rise to a challenge.

The benefits of physical activity

In addition to greater physical fitness, some of the mental benefits of physical exercise include:

  • Less tension, stress and mental fatigue
  • A natural energy boost
  • Improved sleep
  • A sense of achievement
  • Focus in life and motivation
  • Less anger or frustration
  • A healthy appetite
  • A better social life
  • Having fun!

How much should I exercise?

It is recommended that adults do 150 minutes of moderate activity every week, an average of 30 minutes five times a week. For some, this might sound like a lot but even a 15 minute walk can help to clear your mind and relax. Any exercise is better than none.

Moderate exercise means being energetic enough so you:

  • Breathe a little heavier than normal, but aren’t out of breath
  • Feel warmer, but don’t end up hot and sweaty

And if the prospect of doing the recommended amount of exercise straight away is too daunting:

  • Build up slowly at a pace that suits you
  • You don’t have to do a solid half hour either. Find three 10 minute slots each day if that suits you – or two quarter hours.

Suggestions for being more physically active

Being active doesn’t mean going to the gym, taking up jogging or joining a sports team. There are lots of ways to be active – and they don’t need to cost much money. Adopting a more active lifestyle can be as simple as doing daily tasks more energetically, or making small changes to your routine.

Here are a few suggestions:

At home
  • Walk the children or grandchildren to school, then jog home.
  • Speed up the housework. Tidy up faster until you feel warm.
  • Put some music on for a 10 minute dance.
  • Apply more elbow grease when cleaning the car.
At work
  • Time your daily walks to and from the train station. Can you walk faster?
  • Use the stairs for journeys less than four floors.
  • Use your lunch hour. Take a brisk walk, do an exercise class or go for a swim.
  • Don’t pick up the phone; walk to see a colleague.
Out and about
  • Leave the car at home for short journeys.
  • Get off the bus a stop earlier, or get on a stop later.
  • Jog and walk the dog; jog ten paces, then walk ten.
  • Join an exercise class at your community centre – and meet your neighbours!

Click here for more advice from the NHS about getting fit for free.

Helpful resources

If you want to take up a sport, find out which one you are best suited to with a short psychological and aptitude test, developed with an expert team of sports psychologists at Loughborough University. Take the NHS’ sport aptitude test here.

If you’ve decided you want to get active, click here for advice from the NHS on getting started. The Mental Health Foundation also has great advice when becoming more physically active.

Download the free Mental Health Foundation guide for more information on how physical activity improves wellbeing and advice on where to start.

Credits

Many thanks to the Mental Health Foundation and NHS Choices for providing the information included on this page.

Personal experiences

Credit: Mike Powell / All Sport

I have always taken part in sport and exercise and I believe it has made me a better person. In addition to keeping me fit and healthy, regular physical exercise helps me to cope with the challenges of life. Initially, when I first stopped competing at a high level, the thought of ‘exercising for exercising sake’ was a foreign concept. But over time and with the demands of a busy life, I realised I did need to exercise, even if it was just for some ‘me’ time. I also like the social aspect of meeting a group like minded people and it helps keep my weight in check.

I have a demanding job and a family, so stress at differing levels is always nearby. I believe that because I have always had a positive outlet through exercise, I have been able to cope much better with what life throws at me.

Paula Dunn
1988 Olympic Athlete (100 & 200 metre running)

As a long-term sufferer of agoraphobia and panic disorder I, like many people, have tried many different therapies and treatments over the years in order to gain some relief from my symptoms and ultimately to overcome my anxiety. Whilst a course of CBT and clinical hypnotherapy were helpful in their own respective ways, it was physical exercise, specifically running, that proved to be the best therapy for me.

Having been someone who wasn’t traditionally the sporty type, I have to admit that initially the concept of running frightened the life out of me. But after gaining weight after the birth of my second child, continuing to experience anxiety and low self-esteem I thought, what have I to lose, give it a go.

Five years on, I am a size 8; I run on a regular basis and am a member of a local running club. I even started my own group to encourage people like myself to take up the sport. I cannot underestimate the impact that running has had on my life. It is a way of life for me and not only has it helped me to build my self-esteem, lose weight and get fit, but it has also opened up countless social opportunities. I have made so many friends with people I just would not have met otherwise.

My advice to anyone who is reading this who is thinking, “Well I don’t have the energy” or “Sport just isn’t for me,” is to think again. I started off by jogging (at a very slow pace) around the block. I used to do this when it was dark as at the time I had an issue with people seeing me running. Now, I run in the day time proudly sporting my Athletics Club gear and with a sense of pride that only those who run will relate to.

Nicky Lidbetter
Anxiety UK CEO

By The Recovery Village Editor Thomas Christiansen Updated on01/16/20

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.”

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.

Key Points: Anxiety and Exercise

Living with an anxiety disorder is difficult. Constant stress and worry can impact a person’s ability to focus on school or work assignments, their relationships with others and their overall happiness, but exercise can help. Here are a few key points to remember:

  • 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

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 352.771.2700 today to speak to one of our intake coordinators to discuss treatment options.

Adaa.org. “Exercise for Stress and Anxiety.” (n.d). Accessed April 1, 2019.

Health.harvard.edu “Exercising to Relax.” July 13, 2018. Accessed April 1, 2019.

Can exercise cure depression and anxiety?

At the age of 16, Heather Troupe received a diagnosis of chronic severe depression and a prescription for an antidepressant. Eight years and 20 pounds later, she was sleeping poorly, felt a lot of anxiety and had lost her therapist because of insurance complications. Looking to “fix herself,” as Troupe, of Knoxville, Tenn., put it, she began using an elliptical machine every day at the gym, hoping to sweat away what was ailing her.

Today, Troupe, 33, has been medication-free for nine years and credits her daily exercise habits with helping her achieve mental health. “Exercise has been the biggest piece of the puzzle for me,” says Troupe, who is now a fitness instructor. “It’s a place for me to funnel all that extra energy — energy that would otherwise turn into sadness or anxiety.”

Likewise, Erika Howder of Arlington, Va., says exercise pulled her out of the postpartum depression she developed after having her first baby about 14 years ago. She made an appointment with a therapist for help just a few weeks after that birth, but while waiting for the date to arrive, she began to run on a treadmill. “I felt an improvement almost immediately,” she says. “I know I could have tried meds, but most have side effects. Running gave me the antidepressant I needed without any other issues.” She canceled her appointment and never looked back.

Troupe and Howder’s experience has an apparent scientific basis. A new study by researchers at the University of California at Davis Medical Center found that exercise increased the level of the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA, both of which are depleted in the brains of patients with depression and anxiety. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow the brain to communicate with the body.

Chemical messengers

Richard Maddock, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and lead author of the study, said he hopes the findings will encourage more doctors and patients to consider exercise as therapy for these two conditions. “It’s becoming more accepted, but there hasn’t been enough research in this area to make people confident.”

He noted in a statement explaining the study that “major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted glutamate and GABA, which return to normal when mental health is restored. Our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters.”

The study examined 38 healthy volunteers who rode stationary bicycles at a vigorous rate — about 85 percent of their maximum heart rate — for up to 20 minutes in three sessions.Using a type of advanced MRI scanning, the researchers measured GABA and glutamate levels in the brain immediately before and after the exercise sessions.

The scans showed significant neurotransmitter increases in parts of the brain that process visual information and help regulate heart rate, emotions and some cognitive functions. The gains trailed off after 30 minutes. For those participants who had exercised three or four times in the week leading up to the study, there was evidence of longer lasting effects.

The researchers did preliminary scans of all the participants that required they do no exercise in the 24 hours before the study began. The scans showed that “those who had exercised in the week prior already had higher levels than those who had been sedentary,” Maddock said. “The inference here, then, is that regular exercise might keep levels higher all the time.”

Maddock pointed out that exercise is one of the most demanding tasks to ask of the brain, which uses a lot of “fuel” when the body is pushed, even more so than for such intellectually pursuits as chess or calculus. “This is about the brain working better, including those parts of the brain that regulate emotions,” he said. “Those patients whose glutamate and GABA are at low levels are at a disadvantage for controlling their emotions.”

The researchers also scanned the brains of a six-person control group whose members did not exercise. In those cases, no change in neurotransmitter levels was seen.

The results seem to correlate with what Howder experienced as she began running regularly: Her depression slowly began to disappear. “As I ran more and the days passed, I felt more like myself, and the feelings lasted longer,” she said.

‘I felt more like myself’

Other recent studies have shown a link between exercise and reduced depression. A 2011 survey of 11 previous studies, for example, found that exercise appeared to be a significant help to those with depression and suggested doctors begin incorporating it into treatment plans.

Some clinicians have begun to do so.

Jennifer Carter, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine and the director of sport psychology at Ohio State University, said she has been pushing exercise therapy since the early 2000s. “I view balanced exercise as an important component in treating anxiety, depression and other mental-health disorders,” she said. “If clients are depressed, I educate them that the two best self-help strategies are exercise and social support. For anxious clients, I teach them how exercise helps reduce worry, panic and other symptoms.”

Carter adds that although “I inform clients about studies showing that exercise can be as effective and longer-lasting than medicine, I’m not anti-medication,” she said. “Psychotherapy, exercise and medication are all tools that can be effective for mental-health disorders.”

Maddock would like to next study 25 individuals with depression. “We studied healthy people and now I would like to see the effects on those with depression who already have low levels of the neurotransmitters,” he said. “It may be that not everyone will respond to exercise but that we could identify those who would and then treat them accordingly.”

Maddock said that one of the most exciting implications of his group’s findings involved patients younger than 25. “This is a population that sometimes has more side effects from antidepressants,” he said. “It’s also a group that is generally physically able to participate in exercise programs.”

This was exactly how things played out for Troupe, who, after starting her routine on the elliptical, cleaned up her diet and added strength training.

“I still struggle from time to time,” she admitted, “but I know that there is no quick fix and that even while taking medication, I had some low points. I feel so much more capable than before I began exercising.”

Can Running Help to Reduce Anxiety?

You already know running can help you lose weight and prevent disease—but it can also serve as a healthy way to manage stress and maybe even anxiety.

With each run, your body releases feel-good endorphins, improves your mood, and boosts self-confidence.

It also distracts your mind from any spiraling negative thoughts, allows you to confront difficult emotions. Plus, running simply gives you something to feel good about.

Here are five reasons why adding running to your Aaptiv workout routine may help reduce anxiety.

Note: If you suffer from anxiety, consult with your doctor or a mental health professional before starting any exercise regime.

Running helps you relax.

Negative thoughts involve two areas of your brain: the prefrontal cortex, which controls attention and focus, and the hippocampus, which promotes learning and memory.

Physical activity has been shown to encourage the growth of new brain cells. And the simultaneous release of endorphins can help ease anxious feelings, too.

“Running can help to reduce the feelings of anxiety and clear space in your head,” says Aaptiv trainer Jaime McFaden. “I have clients with anxiety who have felt a great sense of calm through running.”

The physical stress of exercise blocks pain signals in the body, prompts an influx of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, and basically reorganizes your brain.

“I find running to be an uninterrupted way to clear your head and sort through your thoughts,” says Aaptiv trainer Jennifer Giamo. “Sometimes just expending nervous energy can also make you feel more relaxed, and many of my running clients says it helps them reduce stress or manage it better.”

Running can be a healthy coping mechanism.

When stress hits, most people reach for unhealthy fixes: a stiff drink, comfort food, or hours of television. Of course, those choices aren’t inherently bad at all.

Running, though, can lift your mood in a similar way, while also giving you a mental and physical escape from stressful situations.

“I personally run to calm my own stress more than for the typical reasons of exercise,” says McFaden. “Before becoming a personal trainer, I battled with depression after my father passed away. Exercise became the best solution for me. That was 12 years ago. I have never felt depressed or anxious since then, and I attribute that to a healthy lifestyle.”

Getting outside might provide the most bang for your buck. One study of outdoor walkers reported a decrease in anxious, ruminating thoughts. Their brain scans also showed decreased neural activity in the part of the brain associated with mental illness.

That said, be sure to also find other ways to manage your anxiety, too. Too much running could potentially lead to overexercising. “Anxiety can also make you feel compelled to work out, or work out for longer than normal,” says psychotherapist Greta Angert, M.S., LMFT.

It’s entirely possible your anxiety symptoms will persist despite regular exercise. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional to find the best options and outlets for you.

Your “fight-or-flight” skills improve.

People who experience anxiety often talk about common symptoms, such as sweating and increased heart rate. These are similar to the types of physical reactions produced by the body during exercise. Some researchers view working out as a form of “exposure treatment,” where individuals prone to anxiety can practice reacting to fight-or-flight sensations. In other words, running can help biologically “toughen up” your brain.

Another study suggests runners are simply less susceptible to stress. Runners can better observe negative feelings that pop up, and then find a way to quell them.

You can practice intentional breathing.

Meditation is known to make exercise more effective, and intentional breathing plays a critical role. No surprise, then, that running can also help lower stress levels because of its emphasis on proper breathwork. Mcfaden says breathing is the most fundamental element to running, and also to calming an anxious mind.

“Running can help with anxiety, which can include symptoms like difficulty sleeping, racing intrusive thoughts, and uncomfortable body sensations, such as stomach problems, headaches, or issues with focus,” says Angert. “Focusing on one’s breath is very effective, and I work with clients who utilize exercise in general as a supplement to therapy and/or medication.”

You’re part of the running community.

Anxiety can cause some people to feel alone. As a runner, though, you’re already part of a big community – especially if you’re part of the Aaptiv community.

Making connections with other runners can equip you with like-minded individuals willing to support you with each run or race. Find a local running buddy, join a running group, or check out the Aaptiv Facebook page for more motivation—and a sense of togetherness.

Again, running is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or medical advice. But it can certainly function as a great way to ease symptoms of stress and/or anxiety. It’s a good place to start.

Can You Really Exercise Away Depression and Anxiety?

On the internet, there are endless lists of the things you can do to heal yourself of any ailment: from depression to migraines, from anxiety to irritable bowel syndrome. Apparently you can cure anything simply chant positive mantras, drink enough water to become a camel, and practice yoga 24/7…maybe even shower while standing on one’s head.

The internet would like us to believe that this is particularly true when it comes to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard “just do X to snap out of Y,” I’d be retired, sipping umbrella drinks in Tahiti.

That said, there has been more than anecdotal evidence that something as simple as regular exercise cure anxiety and depression. Some experts maintain that exercise holds the potential to ease the symptoms of many illnesses, including those of the mental variety. Let’s explore whether exercise really can make a difference with anxiety and depression, or similar mental illness diagnoses that affect one in five Americans.

Endorphins Are Our Friends

Everyone knows about the endorphin rush you feel after a good workout. Doesn’t that rush wear off, though?

According to a University of Toronto study, individuals who are active for 20-30 minutes each day can ward off depression in the long-term. Choose a workout that you love, such as dance, running or weightlifting, and make it a regular part of your routine to not only treat, but according to the study, prevent depression.

Rerouting Nervous Energy

While exercise is by no means a substitute for medication and psychiatric care, it can diffuse excess anxious energy. Working out regulates adrenaline, the chemical that gives us our fight-or-flight response to danger. It’s been shown by many studies and meta-analyses that exercise is associated with reduced anxiety in clinical settings.

For this reason, exercise can sometimes assist those with anxiety disorders to minimize their panic. The next time you’re feeling anxious try taking a brisk walk if possible.

The Michael Phelps’ Experience

Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps discusses the connections between exercise and depression when he opened up about his own mental health struggles. Obviously, just knowing that one of the most elite athletes in the world actively works through mental health challenges should show that working out is not a cure-all for mental illness.

However, by utilizing exercise in combination with medication and/or talk therapy with a licensed mental health professional, you can make great strides toward better mental health outcomes.

Be Honest about Expectations

When he couldn’t complete a workout for any reason (e.g., busy schedule, time in transit), Michael Phelps noticed the negative impact on his mental health. It became as simple as making the time, no matter where he was, rather than being harsh with himself or making up excuses not to.

Depression often causes overwhelming feelings of lethargy that simply can’t be pushed through. So be gentle with yourself during these times! What you don’t want to do is feel guilty over missing a workout when you’re already feeling low.

Keep your exercise expectations reasonable. You wouldn’t give yourself a guilt trip for missing a workout when you had the flu, so if your symptoms are just too much, be kind as you excuse yourself. Remember though, that exercise often lifts us out of these tough places.

Remember, Palliative Care Is Still Care

If you suffer from chronic depression or anxiety, you no doubt know you may be in for a lifelong battle. However, it’s important not to let your challenges throw you into a deeper despair.

Even if combining exercise with your regular treatment doesn’t bring a cure, it can lift your spirits for a time and provide some extra motivation. Even if exercise is not be a cure, if it can make you feel better, it’s worth doing. It is also important for your overall health, which should be plenty motivating.

Living with anxiety or depression, or both, isn’t easy. If you suffer from mental illness, you already know how hard it can be. While it’s not a cure, exercise can be another weapon in the battle against depression and anxiety.

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