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Can You Treat Anxiety with Exercise?

Wendy M Yoder, Ph.D.
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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

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.

Article Resources
  1. Otto et al. Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2007; 9(4): 287-294.
  2. Schwarz L, Kindermann W. Changes in beta-endorphin levels in response to aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Sports Med. 1992 Jan;13(1):25-36. Review. PubMed PMID: 1553453.
  3. JONES, MAXWELL, and VERONICA MELLERSH. A comparison of the exercise response in anxiety states and normal controls. Psychosomatic medicine 8.3 (1946): 180-187.
  4. Schwartz, Gary E., Richard J. Davidson, and Daniel J. Goleman. Patterning of cognitive and somatic processes in the self-regulation of anxiety: Effects of meditation versus exercise. Psychosomatic medicine 40.4 (1978): 321-328. 
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