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The Benefits of Exercise for Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in the United States. They affect nearly 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives.1 National polls also show that anxiety is on the rise.2 Such trends indicate there needs to be a greater emphasis on promoting healthy practices for anxiety management.

The benefits of exercise for physical health are well publicized. However, it is less known that exercise reduces anxiety levels.3 It is important to spread the word that exercise can be a healthy intervention for anxiety management. Exercise reduces anxiety in a number of ways.

First of all, exercise results in changes to the brain that are believed to improve anxiety. Such changes include increased production and release of serotonin and endorphins. These chemicals are believed to elevate mood and reduce anxiety. 

In addition, anxiety activates our body’s sympathetic nervous system which secretes adrenaline. This results in physical changes such as a rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, racing thoughts, muscle tension and sweating. Exercise is beneficial by dampening the response of the sympathetic nervous system.4

From a psychological perspective, exercise teaches you to focus on the present. Anxiety is defined as not being present in the moment. When we are anxious, we either worry about the future or ruminate on past events. Exercise teaches you to be in the present moment because nothing else matters but your current step on the treadmill or current lift. Let your mind wander and you will stumble off the treadmill or fail to lift the weight.

Furthermore, exercise reduces anxiety by building self-efficacy. This occurs because exercise, by design, promotes the setting and achievement of goals. Regardless of your level of physical fitness, there is always a goal to conquer. This may involve walking an extra 5 minutes, swimming an extra lap or lifting an extra 10 pounds. The setting and achievement of goals in the physical arena is empowering. It serves as a blueprint that you can transfer to other facets of your life. 

Finally, exercise promotes self-worth. Every time you exercise, you make yourself a priority. You are saying “I am worth being a healthier version of me.” You are saying NO to the constant demands that others place on you and YES to your health and wellness. You recognize that exercise is an act of accepting yourself. You accept that you have physical imperfections and give yourself permission to work on them.   

Considering the numerous benefits of exercise, I am surprised that only one in three adults receive the recommended amount of physical activity each week.5 I believe that many people never incorporate exercise in their lives because they do not know where to start. With so many options available, it is easy to be overwhelmed. 

The key is not to ruminate on which exercise routine to start, but to start exercising. Any exercise is better than no exercise. Even a slow stroll on a treadmill or around your neighborhood is better than sitting on a couch glued in front of the big screen. The key is to exercise consistently in order to make physical activity a habitual part of your life. This should be your primary goal. Be patient as this may take a few months. 

In addition, have realistic expectations of yourself when you start exercising. Many people start an exercise program that is too intense in the pursuit of quick results. As a result, they quit shortly after starting the program either due to its intensity or because they did not achieve the desired results in a short period of time. 

I recommend that you take it slower when you first start exercising in order to avoid injury and discouragement. Set realistic expectations and be consistent. Choose a level of physical activity that you are comfortable with such as walking on a treadmill or using the exercise bike. As you build the habit of exercise and master an introductory level of physical activity, you will be inclined to gradually elevate the bar and try more demanding exercises.  

Finally, it is best to get out of your comfort zone and leave your house to exercise. You can workout at a park or a gym. Leaving your house serves as an exposure by pushing you out of your comfort zone. Exposure is a cornerstone in the treatment of anxiety disorders. You may initially experience apprehension at a new environment. This is healthy. The more consistently you expose yourself to the new location, the more familiar you will become with it. Over time, you will become more comfortable and experience less apprehension. 

Having said all that, if you are unable to leave your house to exercise for whatever reason such as financial constraints, a lack of transportation or a lack of exercise facilities near your residence, proceed with exercising at home. After all, any exercise is better than no exercise.

References

  1. Parekh, Ranna. American Psychiatric Association. What are Anxiety Disorders? January 2017.
  2. American Psychiatric Association. Americans Say They are More Anxious than a Year Ago; Baby Boomers Report Greatest Increase in Anxiety. May 7, 2018
  3. Anderson Elizabeth and Shivakumar Geetha. Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2013, 4:27.
  4. Mueller PJ. Exercise training and sympathetic nervous system activity: evidence for physical activity dependent neural plasticity. Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology. April 2007. 34(4):377-384
  5. President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition. U.S Department of Health & Human Services. HHS.gov. January 26, 2017. 
The Benefits of Exercise for Anxiety


Dimitrios Tsatiris, MD

Dimitrios Tsatiris, M.D. is a practicing Board Certified psychiatrist. He specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders. He also teaches psychiatry residents and supervises therapists.

He has served as Chief Psychiatry Resident at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center where he was awarded the Outstanding Resident Graduate Award and the American Psychiatric Association Resident Recognition Award.

To read more of his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @DrDimitriosMD.


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APA Reference
Tsatiris, D. (2019). The Benefits of Exercise for Anxiety. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 30, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-benefits-of-exercise-for-anxiety/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 31 Dec 2019 (Originally: 1 Jan 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 31 Dec 2019
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