Does exercise help anxiety?

Does exercise help anxiety? image shows woman with fitness weights
(Image credit: Getty)

Does exercise help anxiety? With many people suffering from anxious thoughts these days, it has become a very common question. Exercise is a long-touted measure for helping to relieve the symptoms of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, but is there any research to support its use? Simply put, yes – and we’ll explain why here.

According to the Elsevier Public Health and Emergency Collection journal, the rate of anxiety increased in the USA from 2008 to 2018. Medications can help with long term chronic anxiety. However, fewer than half (46.3%) of those feeling anxious seek medical help. 

Instead, a simple and accessible way to reduce the impact of anxiety is to do more physical activity. You don’t have to train for a marathon or join a soccer team (although both forms of exercise can be great). Anything from swimming in the open water, going for a long walk in the countryside or stretching on one of the best yoga mats can be great anxiety tips to help you feel more calm. 

Does exercise help anxiety?

Does exercise help anxiety? Work is ongoing to clarify exactly why exercise is so beneficial. However, there are four ways that psychologists and researchers have identified so far. These include distraction, changing our body’s response to stress, changing our brain’s response to stressors and working as a coping mechanism so that we perceive we’re better able to handle difficult situations.

Exercise provides distraction

A study published in the National Library of Medicine has found that exercise can distract you from rumination, which tends to be prevalent in those that experience anxiety. So does exercise help anxiety in this way? Rumination, the process of thinking deeply about something, can be helpful, but not when it is about something you have no control over. It can feel as if it’s taking up all your headspace and leaving you too fatigued or preoccupied to focus on the things that you might be able to do something about. 

Exercise can be a very simple distraction technique. It places your focus and attention elsewhere (as you have to focus on the course, ball or instructor), helping your brain move away from the state of threat that it felt it was under.

Exercise changes our physiology

When you spot a threat that you don’t believe you have the capability or capacity to handle (whether that’s a physical threat to your safety or a psychological threat to who you feel you are as a person), your amygdala (the part of the brain attuned to threat) sends chemicals around your body to prepare your response. This can boil down to three options: fight, flight or freeze. 

Does exercise help anxiety: image shows woman using a foam roller

(Image credit: Getty)

These chemicals increase our heart and respiratory rate, tighten some of our muscles, affect our digestive system and diminish our peripheral vision. Exercise can help to reduce the muscle tension, get your heart and breathing rate matching your body’s effort levels and widen your focus. This can be seen when athletes who have performance anxiety before a match hear the whistle to begin. As their muscles relax (tight muscles are a key symptom of anxiety: NHS) and they get into their rhythm they can start to focus on the activity and not the fear. 

Exercise changes our brains

Many of the studies seeking to identify the specific areas of the brain positively impacted by exercise have been run on rats as it is so tricky to track the impact of physical behaviors with human brains. This study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that one potential reason that anxiety falls after exercise is that the movement creates changes in the hippocampus. This is the area of your brain that’s associated with learning, memory and anxiety regulation.

Exercise encourages good coping mechanisms

Another potential reason as to why exercise helps ease anxiety symptoms is because it has such a strong impact on our cognitive health, as suggested by this study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. With good cognitive health we have higher levels of mental functioning, which involves how we process our thoughts, create memories, concentrate, problem solve, plan and be creative. Good mental functioning means we have much better coping mechanisms ready for when we have to confront stressors.

Does exercise help anxiety: how to stick to a fitness routine

When we feel anxious, the thought of exercising might feel intimidating. In fact, a study in PLOS ONE has shown that those with anxiety are actually less likely to exercise. However, the changes that exercise makes to our brains and bodies can reduce anxiety, so it can be beneficial for those experiencing anxiety symptoms to find a way to physically move their body.

Does exercise help anxiety: image shows woman with dumbbells

(Image credit: Getty)

To do this, you can look at the work on motivation in the National Library of Medicine, led by researchers Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. This work suggests that in order to build intrinsic motivation (an internal love for something), three core areas need to be worked on; community, competency and autonomy.

To make a fitness routine stick, it’s recommended to pick a sport or type of exercise that you love or are genuinely excited to try. Then, try to develop a sense of belonging with others in the same sport or activity. Whether this is in person or online, being able to be honest, open and vulnerable with these people will help you continue the activity. 

Finally, to build competency, you need to focus on becoming really proficient. This will mean that there are fewer fears when you train, so you can feel confident with the moves you are making. 

When we’re doing something we feel competent in, passionate about and safe in doing, it’s much easier to stick to a fitness routine. Not only will this exercise help anxiety, but it will also genuinely help you enjoy the activity. 

Josephine Perry

Josephine is a chartered sport and exercise psychologist who works with athletes, actors, and those performing at high levels in the professions to help them perform better and enjoy the training and competition process more. She is the author of four books: Performing under Pressure, The Psychology of Exercise, I Can: The Teenage Athlete’s Guide to Mental Fitness and The 10 Pillars of Success.