Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/29/2021
Anxiety is a common problem that affects people of all ages and backgrounds. In fact, research shows that an estimated 19.1 percent of all American adults have had an anxiety disorder in the last year.
Common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and others.
If you’ve searched for information about treating anxiety, you may have come across guides to anxiety medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), beta blockers and benzodiazepines.
While these are effective at treating anxiety, research shows that regular exercise can also help improve your thoughts and, for many people, reduce the severity of anxiety disorders.
Put simply, yes. While just about everyone is familiar with the numerous benefits of exercise for your physical health, far fewer people are aware that exercising regularly also provides benefits for your mental health.
Over the years, numerous studies have found a notable link between regular exercise and lower levels of mental health problems, including anxiety disorders.
One study, which was published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders in 2001, looked specifically at the possible link between exercise frequency and anxiety sensitivity in college students.
“Anxiety sensitivity” is a term used in reference to the tendency of people to misinterpret certain anxiety-related sensations and assume that they could have negative consequences.
The researchers behind the 2001 study found a negative association between the frequency of exercise and a person’s anxiety measures.
In short? More frequent exercise meant a lower risk of experiencing anxiety, and other research has found similarly.
In a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis published in BMC Health Services Research, researchers analyzed 15 studies involving people with anxiety disorders who took part in various exercise programs.
Across the studies, the researchers found a moderate link between aerobic exercise and lower levels of reported anxiety.
They also found that higher-intensity forms of exercise were more effective at reducing anxiety severity than lower-intensity forms of exercise.
Overall, the researchers concluded aerobic exercise is an effective treatment option for people with clinical forms of anxiety.
Anxiety is a complex issue. As such, experts aren’t fully aware yet of the exact link between anxiety and exercise.
However, several different theories and biological processes could explain why anxiety helps to improve exercise.
The first of these is the link between exercise and attention control.
Put simply, attention control is your ability to choose what information you pay attention to and what information you instead opt to ignore.
Research shows that exercise can improve attention control. It also shows that better attention control is associated with lower levels of anxiety.
By forcing you to focus on the here and now, rather than the “what if” thought process that often causes anxiety, regular exercise may help you keep your feelings of anxiety under control.
In mindfulness meditation, this is similar to doing a body scan.
The second is the link between the cardiovascular effects of exercise and important chemicals in your brain, such as serotonin and norepinephrine.
These chemicals both play key roles in regulating your mood and helping you to stay in control of emotions, including anxiety.
Interestingly, several antidepressants prescribed to treat anxiety work specifically by increasing your brain’s levels of serotonin and norepinephrine.
Research shows that aerobic exercise increases the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in your brain. It also stimulates other mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, such as dopamine.
This exercise-induced chemical reaction may help make feelings of anxiety less severe and help you to stay calm, collected and focused.
The third is the link between exercise and willpower. Since exercise requires planning and the ability to manage the desire to give up, research suggests that it could enhance willpower and concentration.
These combined effects may explain why regular exercise has such a positive effect on mood for many people.
In addition to improving your mood and treating anxiety, regular physical exercise offers lots of other benefits. These include:
A reduced risk of heart disease. By strengthening your heart and circulatory system, regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing high cholesterol or coronary artery disease. Regular exercise can also control high blood pressure.
Stronger muscles, bones and joints. Exercise, particularly resistance training, is one of the most effective ways to strengthen your muscles. Regular exercise also helps to improve your bone and joint health.
Easier control over your weight. Exercise burns calories, meaning it’s a valuable tool in any weight loss program. This is especially true when regular exercise is paired with a healthy diet.
Better blood sugar control. Regular exercise may lower your blood sugar levels, make insulin more effective and reduce your risk of developing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
A reduced risk of depression. Not only is exercise linked to a reduction in the severity of anxiety, it’s also associated with a lower risk of developing or suffering from several other mental health issues, including depression.
Improved sleep. Numerous studies have found that regular exercise may improve your sleep duration, efficiency and general sleep habits.
Better sexual health. Finally, exercising may reduce your risk of developing a range of common sexual performance issues, including erectile dysfunction (ED).
The bottom line is simple: exercising can not only help with anxiety, but with a large, diverse range of health issues.
Although exercise is often effective at improving mood and reducing the severity of anxiety, it’s certainly not the only treatment option available. Other treatments for anxiety include:
Medication. Several types of medications are used to treat anxiety, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), benzodiazepines, beta-blockers and buspirone.If you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your healthcare provider may provide one of these medications to help you to stay in control of your symptoms.
Psychotherapy. Anxiety often improves with online psychotherapy. Common forms of therapy used to treat anxiety disorders include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.
Lifestyle changes and techniques. Making changes to your lifestyle, such as reducing your exposure to stressful situations, may help you manage anxiety. These may be made in combination with the use of medication or therapy. Our guide to coping with anxiety lists techniques and lifestyle changes that you can use to control your anxiety symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Support groups. Many people with anxiety find that joining an online support group helps them to deal with their symptoms and stay focused on making progress.
If you use medication and/or therapy to treat your anxiety, this doesn’t mean that exercise isn’t also helpful.
Exercise can often complement the effects of medication, therapy and other forms of anxiety treatment.
To that extent, however, it also means that exercise shouldn’t be used in lieu of medication and/or therapy. That’s a conversation you should have with your healthcare provider.
Adding exercise to your daily life is simple. If you’re currently inactive, small things like a daily walk in the park, a quick resistance training session or a bike ride around your neighborhood can all have a positive impact on your physical and mental health.
Use the following tips and techniques to get started with using exercise to improve your anxiety symptoms:
If you’re new to exercising, start small. If you’ve been inactive for a long time, starting a workout can feel daunting. Pick something small and simple to start with, like a walk in the park or a quick jog around your neighborhood.
Pick a form of exercise you enjoy. Just about every type of exercise offers benefits for your mental and physical health. As the saying goes, the most effective exercise routine is the one you’ll stick to. Whether it’s walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing or lifting weights, pick a form of exercise you enjoy so that you’ll feel motivated to continue.
Over time, gradually increase your intensity level. There’s no need to work out like a competitive athlete. However, gradually increasing the intensity level of your exercise is a great way to improve your mental and physical health over time.
Try working out with friends or family. If exercising on your own becomes boring, try working out with your partner, a friend or family member.
Aim for 150 minutes of exercise each week. There’s no “perfect” amount of exercise for treating anxiety. However, the CDC recommends aiming for at least 150 minutes, or two and a half hours, of physical activity per week.
When it comes to exercise, consistency is key. Try to start with a small amount of exercise each day, such as a short walk. Push yourself to complete your daily exercise and you’ll quickly find it becoming a pleasant, enjoyable part of your daily routine.
Numerous studies show that exercise can help to treat anxiety, as well as other common mental health issues such as depression.
Exercise also offers a large range of other benefits, from helping you to maintain a healthy body weight to reducing your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and numerous other diseases and health conditions.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to train like an athlete to be healthy. Research shows that 150 minutes of exercise (two and a half hours) each week is enough to improve your health in several measurable ways.
If you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it’s best to view exercise as a complement to other forms of treatment, not as a complete replacement.
Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions and or take part in therapy and/or use medication as prescribed, even as you exercise.
Make sure to consult with your healthcare provider before making any changes to your use of medication or therapy routine.
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