Exercise And Anxiety: Does Exercise Help?
Updated January 01, 2019
Reviewer Rashonda Douthit , LCSW
Exercise and fitness are such a ubiquitous part of our culture today that it is hard to imagine a time when going to the gym after work was not seen as a normal habit. But, just a few decades ago, Americans were much less likely to exercise on their own. People may have been involved in sports, but seldom went to a gym just to work out or went for a run if it were not with a sports team or part of a training program. In 1960, President Kennedy went so far as to call America a "soft" and "under-exercised" nation.
Things began to change in 1968, when Dr. Kenneth Cooper published his then-groundbreaking book Aerobics, outlining the health benefits of exercise. Since then, exercise has become part of daily life for millions of people. Working out is now seen as essential for overall health and a healthy lifestyle.
While the physical benefits of exercise are certainly important, many people also choose exercise for the impact that it has on their mental health. Anxiety is on the rise, and the millions of people who live with anxiety are looking for ways to manage their condition. In addition to therapy and medication, exercise is one of the main ways that people choose to cope with anxiety. Many people find that exercising makes them feel calmer and blow off steam when they feel stressed. But does exercise really help anxiety?
Anxiety: A Growing Problem
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. It is estimated that over 18%, or 40 million, American adults live with anxiety. And, that number is increasing. A 2018 survey reported that 39% of respondents said they feel more anxious than they did at the same time last year.
People who struggle with anxiety experience some similar symptoms, including feelings of panic and worry. But within the broader definition of anxiety, there are also several subtypes of the condition, including:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by chronic anxiety and worry, even when nothing provoked it. Someone with a generalized anxiety disorder may frequently feel like they are "on edge" or very tense for seemingly no reason.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) involves two factors: recurrent and unwanted thoughts (obsessions), and repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Someone with OCD engages in the compulsions in hopes of preventing the obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Not performing the repetitive behaviors can make someone with OCD feel intense anxiety.
- Panic Disorder: Unlike generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder is characterized by intense, acute episodes of extreme anxiety. The panic attacks are typically unexpected and cause someone to feel major fear as well as experience physical symptoms like chest pain, dizziness, and shortness of breath.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops after exposure to a terrifying event in which someone was seriously injured, could have potentially been seriously harmed or observed someone in extreme danger. Triggering events include natural disasters, accidents, and violent assaults. Someone with PTSD may experience panic attacks when they are exposed to something that reminds them of the traumatic event, like a loud noise, or experience feelings that remind them of the event, such as shock.
- Social Anxiety Disorder: Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is characterized by feelings of anxiety or extreme self-consciousness in everyday situations involving other people. Some people experience social anxiety disorder only in certain situations, such as speaking in front of a crowd or eating in public. More severe forms of social phobia may cause someone to experience anxiety anytime they need to be around or interact with other people.
While all of these conditions cause someone similar feelings of anxiety, tension, and panic, they impact people's lives in different ways and need to be treated differently as well. For example, PTSD and social anxiety disorder may be effectively treated with exposure therapy, but that type of intervention would have less of an effect for someone with generalized anxiety disorder.
Can Exercise Help Anxiety?
Yes, exercise can help anxiety. But, it also depends on the type of anxiety and the person. As with all treatments for anxiety, different things work for different people. Many people with anxiety have reported that exercise helps them better manage their symptoms of the condition and feel less anxious overall. But, it is important to try exercise for anxiety for yourself to see what works for you.
How Does Exercise Help Anxiety?
There are numerous ways in which exercise helps anxiety:
Exercise can be a release for people when they are feeling stressed or tense. If you have ever punched a punching bag during a boxing class, you understand how exercise and movement can help you unload your stresses. After a long day of work, or a fight with a friend, or when you are feeling anxious for seemingly no reason, moving your body and clearing your mind can help you let go of those feelings and prevent them from developing into deeper feelings of anxiety.
When living with anxiety, it is all too easy to get caught up in your thoughts. One triggering thought can spiral into many more and lead you to feel extremely anxious and unable to calm yourself down. Working out, whether you go to the gym on your own, attend an exercise class, go for a jog outside, or engage in any form of exercise, is a great way to distract your mind and stop yourself from getting caught up in anxiety-inducing thoughts. While exercising, your mind will be focusing on your body's movements, giving you a much-needed break from the thoughts that make you feel anxious. Sometimes, distracting yourself and having a good workout is enough to stop anxious thoughts in their tracks.
When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, a feel-good hormone that naturally boosts your mood. In addition to making you feel happier, endorphins also reduce stress, which in turn can make you feel less tense and anxious. When you feel anxious, try taking a 10-minute break to move your body and stimulate the release of endorphins to see if their stress-fighting abilities help calm you down.
Lack of sleep or poor quality of sleep has been shown to increase rates of anxiety, especially among women. Anxiety can also make it harder to sleep, especially if you feel stressed and anxious at night.Exercise can help with both of these situations, as working your muscles hard naturally makes you more tired. Working out requires an immense amount of energy, so your body will be more prepared to fall asleep at night. Plus, exercise may make you feel less anxious overall, making you less likely to start feeling symptoms of your anxiety as your head hits the pillow.
What Is The Best Exercise For Anxiety?
All types of exercise are beneficial for both mental and physical health. Still, there are a few forms of exercise that experts think are particularly helpful when it comes to reducing feelings of anxiety. These exercises include:
- Running: When you're feeling anxious, lacing up for a jog may be the best solution. Running provides all of the benefits of exercise for anxiety, like an endorphin boost, stress relief, and distraction. Running also triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin, two mood-regulating neurochemicals. The repetitive nature of running can also have a meditative effect on the brain which leaves you feeling calm and rejuvenated as you would after sitting in meditation.
- Hiking Outdoors: To reap the maximum anxiety-reducing benefits from your workouts, try going for a hike outdoors. Studieshave shown that simply spending time in nature lowers levels of stress hormones and has a relaxing effect on the mind. Combing time in nature with exercise makes for an ultra-calming workout that can help relieve symptoms of anxiety.
- Yoga: There's a reason that the "zen yogi" stereotype exists. Yoga carries the benefits of other forms of exercise, and then some. One of the main principles of yoga is to live in the present and not get caught up in your thoughts, which is extremely useful for someone experiencing anxiety. Other aspects of yoga, like deep breathing and meditation, also have anti-anxiety effects.
That being said, the best exercise for depression and anxiety (and the best exercise in general) is one that you enjoy. If you try to force yourself into a workout routine that you hate, you will not be able to stick with it. You will always get the most benefit, both mental and physical, out of the type of exercise that you can do consistently. If your favorite workout is not on the above list, don't worry. If you already have a type of exercise that you enjoy and feel that it helps you manage your anxiety, certainly continue to do it. But, if you feel that your current workout routine does not help with your anxiety, try adding one of the above exercises into your routine and see if it makes a difference.
Other Ways to Manage Anxiety
While exercise helps many people cope with their anxiety, it is not the only effective way to manage anxiety. More traditional methods, like medication and therapy, should not be overlooked. Millions of people manage their anxiety with the help of a therapist or counselor, who can serve as a trusted confidant and offer valuable, individualized advice for coping with anxiety.
For many people, a combination of anxiety management techniques works best. If you are struggling with anxiety, remember that treatment is not "one size fits all," and it could take time to find the anxiety treatments that work for you. Get in touch with a therapist or counselor if you want to take the first step towards finding the best way for you to cope with your anxiety.