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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 […]

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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.

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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.

This Might Help

  • Develop your skills. From stress to anxiety, memory to resilience, there are scientifically proven ways that can help you in areas where you might need support.
  • We think around 50,000 thoughts a day. You can reframe the unhelpful ones to lower stress. Try it now with the exercise below.
  • Want more? Download the Total Brain app for free to assess your mental health and brain performance, see how you compare to others, and access the full library of self-care exercises including brain training, breathing, meditation, and neuroscience based music. Take the Total Brain assessment now and see how you compare.
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