Therapies & Solutions

Can You Treat Anxiety with Exercise?

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

Can You Treat Anxiety with Exercise?

As soon as you realize you're suffering from anxiety, many people immediately pursue treatment. You may go to your doctor to talk about medications. You may start searching for a therapist. You may try to take a more natural approach and use herbal remedies. You may try all of these things.

But what you may not know is that there is a method of managing anxiety that is considered as powerful as some medicines. It's a method that is not only side effect free - it might even make you healthier. There is a method that you can easily integrate in your life right now, and the only thing you may need to buy for it is new shoes.

What many people don't yet realize is that daily exercise alone may be powerful enough to drastically reduce your anxiety. Studies have shown time and time again that there is an incredibly strong relationship between anxiety and exercise - one that could tip the scales towards living an anxiety free life.

Inactivity and Anxiety

The relationship actually starts at inactivity. Studies have shown a very strong correlation between a lack of physical activity and the development of anxiety disorders. This relationship isn't entirely clear, but many of the proposed causes of this include:

  • Unused Energy One of the most frequently cited reasons for anxiety is unused energy. Your body was made to move, and unfortunately when it doesn't move it creates tension. We see this actually with dogs often - dogs that don't get their daily walks often become anxious and high strung, because if they don't work out their energy, that energy turns first into physical tension, and then into mental tension.
  • Increased Stress Hormone When you feel stress, your body releases a hormone known as cortisol. There's evidence that movement is what depletes cortisol, bringing it back to normal levels. This makes sense, because anxiety itself is the "fight or flight" system. When your body experiences it, it expects you to fight or flight. Inactivity is essentially doing nothing, and that may cause your body to start misfiring your stress and anxiety hormones.
  • Immune System Malfunction Exercise is also necessary for a regulated immune system, as well as maintaining a healthy hormone balance. There's reason to believe that inactivity prevents these important things from occurring.

There may also be secondary components as well. Those that are often inactive are also often enjoying less experiences, and positive experiences are good for anxiety. Those that aren't working to improve their health may develop small problems that create anxiety on their own. These may all be contributing factors.

So whether unused energy is creating anxiety through the mind/body connection, or some other mechanism is causing anxiety to occur, there is evidence that inactivity is one of the main issues that leads to the development of anxiety.

Exercise as Anxiety Management

Of course, inactivity is not the cause of anxiety for everyone. Some people are genetically prone to anxiety. Others have had experiences that shaped their anxiety symptoms. Whether inactivity caused your anxiety or not, there is also reason to believe that exercise alone can be one of the best ways to manage it.

Anxiety management is about performing behaviors that fight anxiety, and exercise - of all possible behaviors - is potentially one of the best anxiety cures. Evidence suggests all of the following:

  • Preventing Inactivity First and foremost, of course, is that exercise is the opposite of inactivity. If you're exercising, then the effects of inactivity on anxiety will no longer be present. Even if inactivity didn't cause your anxiety, it often makes it worse. Exercise reduces the likelihood that inactivity related anxiety affects you.
  • Releasing "Relaxation" Neurotransmitters Still, the primary reason that exercise works as en effective anxiety management solution is because exercise actually has some of the same effects as some anxiety medications. Exercise releases endorphins in your brain, which are your body's natural painkillers. They're technically released to prevent exercise from causing pain, but they also play a role in regulating mood and relaxing the mind.
  • Burning Cortisol Nearly everyone living with anxiety likely has excess cortisol in their body, as a result of the stress that anxiety places on them. Exercise depletes that cortisol, preventing many of the symptoms that lead to further anxiety, such as concentration problems and fatigue.
  • Improved Sleep Exercise also tires the body enough that it becomes easier to sleep with anxiety - something that many anxiety sufferers struggle with. Sleep is crucial for anxiety management, to the ability for exercise to improve sleep is incredibly valuable.
  • Healthy Activity Finally, exercise represents a healthy coping tool in general. Coping is about making sure that you're spending time in ways that are good for your mental health, and exercise is most certainly a way to do that.

There are countless other reasons why exercise may also help with anxiety. Exercise improves confidence. It ensures that your body is healthy, and good health is important for every mental health issue. It also helps your body run more efficiently, and prevent any "misfiring" that may be causing persistent anxiety.

What Exercises Will Improve Your Anxiety Symptoms?

People hear "start exercising" and they immediately zone out. When you haven't exercised, picking up exercise can be pretty hard. It should be noted that exercise always is hard first before it gets easier - your body needs to get used to the breathing and exertion, and within a few weeks it usually does - but there is no denying that starting to exercise can feel like a grueling task.

There's good news - you don't need to exercise intensely. You simply need to get out and get moving.

That's not to say that you shouldn't try to ramp your way up to more intense exercises. For some of the benefits of exercise on anxiety - especially endorphin release - you need to exercise as intensely as possible. But the most important thing you can do is get up and move, and if you simply go play some basketball or go for a bike ride once a day, you'll see a noticeable difference even without added intensity.

How to Break Into Exercising

You can start exercising simply by walking around your home. If you feel like you're out of shape, get to walking. When you're on the phone, when you're watching TV - it doesn't matter. Go pace around and keep yourself moving. You can also consider the following:

  • Stretch Don't just sit without moving for long periods of time. Every 15 minutes, stand up and stretch. Make sure that you're never letting your blood settle and your muscles freeze.
  • Walk Everywhere Walking really is good exercise. Your entire body moves, and when your body moves, you're exercising. If you have somewhere to go and you can walk there then you should walk there.
  • Get a Bike Just like walking, biking everywhere can be incredibly healthy too. If you need to go a longer distance, using your bike is a quick and easy way to get there that ensures you're able to skip the car.
  • Play Relaxed Sports Playing sports is, of course, the best way to exercise, and there is no sport that isn't useful. Whether it's bowling, badminton, baseball, basketball, football, or dancing, if it's a sport it's something that will get your blood flowing and reduce anxiety.

Moving is moving. If you're consistently using your muscles and your heart, even if it's at a low energy, you're helping reduce your overall anxiety symptoms.

When You're Ready to Move Up

Of course, the best exercising benefits will come from more intense exercises. While all exercise is valuable, added intensity will burn away more stress hormones and improve neurotransmitter release. When you feel like you're ready to increase the intensity, try the following:

  • Yoga Yoga is a lot more physically demanding than people realize, but it's also great for anxiety. Yoga is not only a very healthy form of exercise; it also teaches better breathing habits, which are a fairly common anxiety problem.
  • Join a Team If you want to increase your intensity level, join a team. Unlike playing sports for fun on your own time, when you're on a team you have to compete, and when you compete you'll be exerting more energy.
  • Swimming Swimming is more intense than walking, but can be completed at your own pace. You can still go slow if you're not ready to ramp up the intensity, but the resistance of the water will ensure your muscles are getting a good workout.
  • Light Jogging When you're ready, jogging can be incredibly beneficial. It's arguably one of the best ways to improve your anxiety, but many people dislike jogging. Remember though: the more you jog, the easier it gets.

All activity helps with anxiety and the more exercise you complete, the more likely you'll see the results. Those are some examples of how you can increase your exertion without too much intensity.

Intense Exercises for Anxiety

Of course, it's all leading up to the most intense exercises you can complete. The greater the intensity, the more beneficial the exercise will be for anxiety. Make sure you talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program - especially an intense one.

  • Long Distance Jogging When you're able to get there, long distance jogging can be incredible. That's because when you reach a certain level, you get what's known as the "runner's high" - a massive rush of endorphins that many describe as feeling incredible, and is great to control anxiety.
  • Joining a Gym Joining a gym counts as mild, moderate, and intense exercise, because there are so many different things you can do at the gym to manage your anxiety. But many people prefer not to join a gym until they're ready. Once you're ready, though, you'll find that there is no limit to the number of exercises, and thus no limit to how intense you can exercise.
  • Daily Healthy Living Finally, when you're ready, you can find things to do every day that provide you with a daily and active workout. Consider hiking every weekend, biking to work - anything you can do to live a more active lifestyle.

When you're ready to make the commitment, the more you can increase your exercise, the better you'll be, and the easier time you'll have managing your anxiety.

Managing Your Anxiety

It may sound like an excuse to get you exercising. It may sound like a pipe dream. It's neither of those things. Exercise really is extremely effective for anxiety management, and something that will make a big difference in how you deal with anxiety and stress.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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