When we feel anxious or depressed, exercise may seem like the last thing we want to do. But ironically, it may be one of the best things to help uplift our state of mind. Research shows that people who exercise regularly feel better than people who don’t. And not only is physical activity is free, it’s as effective as medication or therapy for reducing anxiety.
The good news is that you don’t have to spend hours each day at the gym to experience the mental health benefits of exercise. Studies show that people who exercise regularly are much less anxious than people who remain stationary. There are many health benefits to making exercise part of your life, even if it’s only a small session each day.
How Does Exercise Help Reduce Anxiety?
Just like anxiety-reducing medications, exercise helps us produce more “feel-good” neurochemicals. These include serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. People often claim they feel “high” after a long run. This sensation of euphoria is likely due to the body’s production of feel-good neurotransmitters. However, you don’t need to run miles to experience the benefits of physical activity. One group of researchers found that after just 20 minutes of cycling, people report feeling happier and less anxious.
Exercise also helps create new brain cells. Brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is a protein that promotes the growth and lifespan of brain cells. While low levels of BDNF are linked to anxiety and depression, exercise can increase BDNF. Physical activity also stimulates the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that quiets the overactive brain. Through GABA’s calming effects, we feel less worried. This is why anxious thoughts decrease after exercise.
Exercise Reduces Stress
Physical activity allows us to respond more flexibly to stress. When we run, do yoga or lift weights, we put a mild amount of strain on the body. But by taking on this stress consciously, it trains our system to recover from stress much faster than we otherwise would.
When a stressor shows up in their day unexpectedly, physically active people feel stressed at first, just like everyone else. But their body calms down more quickly, decreasing its production of stress hormones such as cortisol. This means they can respond to a threat when it’s present, but not worry about the threat after it passes.
Exercise also builds confidence. Watching ourselves improve at a new skill (like yoga or dancing) can strengthen our belief in ourselves to master new things. Physical activity adds healthy variety to our routine, too. Making time each day to walk outside, dance or ride a bike gives us a break from thinking about what’s stressing us out.
In other words, exercising can be a helpful form of distraction. If you choose to exercise in a group, it also gives you the bonus of connecting with other people. Shared social activities can be a great remedy for anxiety.
Getting Started with Exercise
According to the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, short bouts of exercise can reduce anxiety in the short term. To reduce anxiety long term, adults should take part in regular exercise at a moderate-to-vigorous level.
Here are a few tips for making exercise a regular part of your life:
- Find something you enjoy. There isn’t one type of exercise that is best for managing anxiety. Researchers agree that any form of exercise is better than no exercise at all. If you like to be social, seek out a group class at a local gym. If you prefer more solitary activities, try jogging or internet-guided classes at home. When you find a physical activity you enjoy, it increases the likelihood you’ll do it more often.
- Develop a consistent habit. Humans are creatures of habit, and we’re more likely to do something if it feels automatic. Experts suggest setting a time each day to do an activity that’s important to us. You can also set small goals and go from there. For example, try a daily 20-minute walk and then gradually increase the duration each week.
- Focus on the process rather than the outcome. When we exercise, we’re often motivated to improve our physique. But researchers say the more we focus on the value of exercising for its own sake—because it makes us feel good or helps us connect to others–the more likely we are to make it a regular part of our lives.
- Be kind to yourself. If it’s been awhile since you’ve been active, go easy on yourself. It’s difficult to sustain a new habit if you’re beating yourself up. Don’t be hard on yourself for feeling out of shape. In fact, researchers have found that people who are kind to themselves are more likely to take part in healthy behaviors like exercise. Check this self-compassion article for more on being kind to yourself.
Try These Anxiety Reducing Exercises
Here are a few forms of activity shown to reduce anxiety:
- Walking: A study in 2015 found that individuals who walked on a treadmill for 40 minutes at a moderate intensity (achieving 60-80% of their maximum heart rate) three times a week for 12 weeks showed significant declines in anxiety.
- Yoga: A review of studies on hatha yoga—the physically active form of yoga in contrast to seated meditation—concluded that yoga helps to decrease anxiety. The more people practiced yoga, the more their anxiety went down. People diagnosed with clinical anxiety in particular noticed a strong improvement.
- Aerobic Exercise: People who exercise on treadmills at a brisk walk or on stationary bicycles for 20 to 50 minutes show significant declines in their levels of anxiety.
- Resistance Exercise: When people weight train with free weights, elastic bands or machines at 50-70% of their repetition maximum (low to moderate intensity), their anxiety levels decrease. In contrast, high intensity weight training is not associated with lower anxiety.