How does exercise help people who struggle with anxiety? By understanding the relationship between anxiety and exercise, you can create a workout plan that helps relieve anxiety symptoms.

Yes, exercise can help with symptoms of anxiety. Overwhelming stress and persistent negative thoughts contribute to feelings of anxiety. Rumination, which involves constant overthinking about unknown events or scenarios, is also a primary symptom of anxiety.

As rumination and anxiety become consistent parts of someone’s thought process, that person can develop an anxiety disorder. The formation of this type of mental condition can occur genetically or through life experiences. Chemical imbalances cause anxiety and these disparities can result in worsening moods and depressive states.

Exercising can counter the chemical imbalance by producing endorphins, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Endorphins interact with receptors in the brain and create a euphoric high. The endorphins produced through exercise provide temporary relief from mental struggles.

Not only does physical activity release stress and produce endorphins, but it also increases a person’s self-confidence. Completing workouts results in feelings of accomplishment and improved physical appearance, both of which can also boost a person’s mood and distract them from negative thoughts.

There are other benefits to regular exercise. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Studies show that it is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function.”

Article at a Glance:

  • Exercise can be a healthy coping mechanism for symptoms of anxiety Exercise is a healthy way to diminish the effects of anxiety.
  • Exercising produces endorphins that create a “feel good” effect
  • There is no one best form of exercise for anxiety. Individuals should find a type of physical activity they enjoy

Exercise Regimens to Relieve Anxiety Symptoms

Currently, there is no best form of exercise for depression and anxiety symptoms. Each person responds differently to various activities.

Some people may receive greater mental boosts from cardiovascular workouts. Others will benefit more from weightlifting or prefer team sports. People wishing to utilize exercise for stress and anxiety reduction should experiment with their workout schedule to find the most effective strategy.

If you do not have an exercise regimen or want to overhaul your current approach, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) website lists anxiety-reducing tips for each type of workout.

Cardiovascular Exercise and Anxiety

According to researchers at Harvard University, regular aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, dancing) decreases the levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Daily physical activity also helps people fall asleep at regular times and achieve more restful sleep, which causes decreased stress. Exercise also combats negative thoughts and emotions by improving physical appearance and health.

“As your waistline shrinks and your strength and stamina increase, your self-image will improve,” the Harvard University website states. “You’ll earn a sense of mastery and control, of pride and self-confidence. Your renewed vigor and energy will help you succeed in many tasks, and the discipline of regular exercise will help you achieve other important lifestyle goals.”

The ADAA recommends performing a cardio activity three to five times per week for at least 30 minutes. Doing so consistently decreases stress and prevents multi-day anxiety buildups.

For individuals who get anxious or overwhelmed thinking about beginning an exercise routine for the first time: Cardio workouts require the least structure and planning. People can jog or bicycle with another person or on their own. Additionally, cardio routines there isn’t a need for a crowded gym unless running indoors is the only option. Aerobic exercise can be done indoors or outdoors and in any specific setting, such as a trail, neighborhood or gym, which makes cardio routines more accommodating than other forms of fitness that require a specific location.

Weightlifting and Anxiety

Not everyone enjoys cardio workouts, and people should prioritize doing enjoyable activities rather than forcing themselves into routines they dislike. Preventing fitness from feeling like a chore helps people maintain consistent daily activity.

For some, weightlifting is the preferred workout, and it can diminish anxiousness and depression. The primary reward is muscle gain, which helps people’s self-confidence. However, weightlifting exerts the same stress hormones as jogging and produces the same mood-boosting chemical, endorphin. So, people who choose to lift weights instead of jogging are not missing out on any chemical benefits.

The ADAA suggests focusing on daily physical activity, even in small amounts, rather than one or two long weekly workouts. That means five or six trips to the gym each week for 30 minutes to an hour rather than packing everything into less-frequent, two- or three-hour sessions. While the physical benefits might be the same, daily exercise results in consistent endorphin production and stress exertion rather than allowing a buildup of anxiousness throughout the week.

Team-Sports Exercise and Anxiety

Individual or small-group exercises like cardio and weightlifting may work for some but not for others. Different personality types may crave more engaging and interactive activities, such as team sports. Joining a softball league or playing pickup basketball with friends can exert energy, reduce stress, release endorphins, improve physical health and appease a necessity for social interaction.

People that have a mental condition associated with how others perceive them — such as social anxiety — may desire interaction to diminish the effects of their anxiety. Even an activity as simple as playing football and being part of a team-oriented recreation or competition can subside loneliness and other negative emotions.

If you live with an anxiety disorder, consider adding physical activity to your schedule. A revamped, healthier lifestyle can bring numerous health benefits and decrease your stress levels.

If you struggle with anxiety disorder and use drugs or alcohol to cope, The Recovery Village can help. Call  888.374.5434 today to speak to one of our intake coordinators to discuss treatment options.

Thomas Christiansen
Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
Sources “Exercise for Stress and Anxiety.” (n.d). Accessed April 1, 2019. “Exercising to Relax.” July 13, 2018. Accessed April 1, 2019.

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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.