It’s easy to get caught up in the pressures of everyday life and lose sight of your most important job: taking care of yourself.
The pressure of continuous productivity is compounded by the looming stresses of keeping up with personal finances while feeling powerless against the fluctuations of the global economy. And then there are everyday obligations like making dinner for the family, tidying the house, and fostering our relationships.
Without the proper tools and resources to nurture our mental well-being, it’s easy to feel burned out and overwhelmed with anxiety. And feeling overwhelmed is neither uncommon nor unusual. As of 2020, 19% of American adults reported a chronic anxiety disorder, with 37% seeking treatment.
Exercise isn’t usually top of the to-do list when we experience anxiety. Especially if it’s a new habit, it can feel like a “should” rather than a “want to,” and another obligation is the last thing we need.
But regular exercise is one of the most accessible tools for improving overall health, including reducing physical and mental anxiety symptoms. We’ll answer the question “Does exercise help with anxiety?” by discussing different types of anxiety and looking at the science of exercise.
Anxiety is a natural physiological reaction to stressful situations that produce feelings of worry, panic, and stress. For example, a disagreement with a loved one or a make-or-break client presentation could cause us anxiety.
Not all anxiety is the same. Here are two of the most common types:
- Acute anxiety appears quickly, doesn’t linger, and is part of our fight-or-flight reaction. When we feel stressed, our nervous system sends messages to our brains to respond. While stress isn’t our healthiest motivator, it’s not inherently bad. It often pushes us to take the necessary steps to do difficult things like have an uncomfortable conversation with a loved one or double-check our work before presenting it to a client.
- A chronic anxiety disorder is when the above stress response has difficulty turning off. This disorder is defined by excessive fear or anxiety, and people who live with it have fears or worries that feel all-encompassing. Chronic anxiety might cause you to constantly fear conflicts with your partner and thus avoid them altogether or procrastinate on that presentation until the last minute.
While heightened and longer-lasting for those with chronic anxiety disorder, anxiety symptoms are shared across both types. These include:
Untreated anxiety symptoms can lead to more serious health problems, such as depression and a weakened immune system. If your anxiety interferes with your well-being, consider seeing a mental health professional.
The relationship between exercise and overall health
While acute anxiety might be hard to avoid, people with regular exercise routines have a reduced risk of being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder compared to sedentary folks. The CDC recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise five days a week to see positive health benefits such as healthy weight management, lower stress, and reduced risk of health conditions like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
While these benefits are impressive, 25% of US adults don’t exercise. Several factors contribute to this, including location, profession, and preexisting health conditions. Anxiety can also cause a lack of motivation, making it hard for anxious individuals to get active. But when exercise starts to become a habit, individuals will experience its benefits and lower anxiety.
To show how exercise improves anxiety symptoms, we’ve outlined the science behind exercise and our health.
Exercise and the brain
When we engage in moderate physical exercise, our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is stimulated, and neurotransmitters send messages to the body to increase blood circulation. Several brain regions activate, including our limbic system (which dictates motivation and mood), the amygdala (which regulates our stress response), and the hippocampus (which controls memory formation).
Neurochemicals are also released into the body. When we exercise, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are reduced. As our stress hormones decrease, the production of “happy hormones” like endorphins and serotonin increases.
Endorphins’ are the body’s natural painkiller and mood regulator. When we feel a boost of energy after exercising accompanied by feelings of relaxation following a high-intensity workout, this reaction is caused by our endorphins and other neurotransmitters.
Exercise and behavior
Regular physical activity also contributes to psychological improvements in our emotional state when we begin to see improvements in our physical health. The physical benefits of a regular exercise program may include:
- Improved sleep
- Increased endurance
- More energy
- Increased mental alertness
- Weight loss
- Improved mood
When you begin to see the positive effects of exercise on your general physical condition, you’ll likely notice improvements in your self-esteem. As you see yourself progress and develop an exercise routine, you may feel more capable of accomplishing other goals in your life.
Exercise is also an opportunity to learn how to focus our mental energy. It forces us to concentrate on one task, whether lifting weights or swimming laps. When we focus on doing one thing, our mind is often too distracted to worry about other stressors.
How exercise helps with anxiety
Medical and mental health professionals frequently recommend exercise as a treatment for stress and anxiety. For people dealing with acute or chronic anxiety, exercise is a useful, affordable, and accessible treatment. And those with acute anxiety may find anxiety relief after a single exercise session.
But before expecting exercise to solve everything, it’s important to assess the severity of your anxiety. Most research on anxiety and exercise focuses on observational studies that prove people who exercise regularly have lower stress and anxiety levels.
And while regular exercise is a beneficial treatment for moderate anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder, people with conditions such as panic or obsessive-compulsive disorders may not notice as much improvement from exercise alone.
No matter your level of anxiety, an exercise program should complement an overall treatment plan. But if you’re experiencing anxiety that severely impacts your day-to-day life, you should seek advice from a professional.
Physical exercises for reducing anxiety
To promote overall health, medical health professionals recommend mixing anaerobic strength training like calisthenics or weightlifting with aerobic exercise. Both forms of exercise have been found to reduce anxiety and provide other mental health benefits.
Here are some exercise recommendations for reducing your anxiety:
Swimming is a relaxing way to focus on something other than your anxiety symptoms. It’s also been proven to reduce anxiety in pregnant people, individuals with fibromyalgia, and families that care for children with developmental disabilities. Sustained periods in the pool, like 30–45 minutes at a time, will offer the cardio benefits of aerobic exercise.
Running or cycling
Aerobic exercise releases endorphins, those feel-good hormones that stabilize your mood and make you feel more relaxed and happy. If you incorporate regular aerobic exercise such as cycling or jogging into your weekly routine, that consistent supply of endorphins may have long-term positive effects on your anxiety.
Tai Chi is a martial art that combines meditation and rhythmic breathing exercises with slow body movements. This practice may provide the following benefits:
- Reduced stress
- Lowered blood pressure
- Reduced anxiety
- Increased happiness
- Boosted self-esteem
Yoga is an ancient Indian practice that seeks to clear the mind. Yoga can range from relaxing mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises to rigorous stretching and physical posturing that may result in:
The power of community sports
People who feel a strong connection to friends, family, and community have lower levels of anxiety and depression. When you feel connected to others, you’re more prone to develop stronger self-esteem, empathy, trust, and cooperation, which may compel others to reciprocate this positivity.
Building a community around health can have the double benefit of creating stronger relationships and encouraging you to keep going, a positive loop that will improve your overall emotional well-being. If you feel doubtful about staying on track, having an accountability partner keeps you moving in the right direction.
In addition to going to the gym with a partner, here are some community activities you could try:
- Water aerobics
- Marathon running
Recognize that you’re doing your best
We’ve discussed how exercise does help with anxiety, but one thing’s missing: acceptance. Experiencing anxiety isn’t something to beat yourself up about. Often, anxiety is simply an overactive amygdala that thinks small issues are equivalent to a bear scare.
Accepting that your anxiety symptoms aren’t overreactions you can rationalize away is the first step to finding a treatment plan.
However, if you choose to tackle your anxiety, try dipping your toe into exercise as a partial solution. Create a program you’re excited about that changes often so you don’t get bored. Consider your daily exercise a chance to get out of your head and focus on something like running to the neighborhood or swimming a couple more laps.