10 Ways Exercise Helps Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Research has shown that physical activity can be used as a natural remedy for anxiety and also help protect against getting anxiety by improving your stress resilience.
Keep reading for how exercise reduces anxiety, related research, and ways to get more exercise into your daily routine.
How does exercise reduce stress and improve mood naturally?
Physical exercise is one of many natural remedies for anxiety. It is great for keeping the muscles from harboring tension and also helps your mind and mood.
Exercise can improve your mental health and relieve stress by:
helping your mind move over from your worries to focusing on the physical activity,
releasing feel-good endorphins,
helping you overcome unhealthy thinking patterns by creating new brain neuropathways,
reducing inflammation (research has shown a connection between inflammation and anxiety),
relaxing you (during or after the exercise),
improving sleep (which then, in turn, decreases anxiety and stress; for more on this, see my earlier post Sleep And Anxiety—A Cyclic Relationship),
helping everything in your body work better, including the organs that control stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline,
helping you become more comfortable with an increased heart rate (so that when your heart rate goes up with anxiety you don't compound the anxiety by getting anxious about your heart rate),
boosting your self-confidence, and
working the muscles that have tensed up from the stress.
Exercise and Mood Research
A 2018 review of research published in Current Psychiatry Reports journal reported that exercise has been demonstrated to improve depression and anxiety and also protect people from getting/experiencing depression and anxiety. (See reference 1 at end of this article)
In a 2012 study, thirty inactive women who were diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder were divided into 3 groups: resistance training, aerobic exercise, and a control group. The physical activity groups had 2 weekly exercise sessions for 6 weeks. People in both the resistance training and aerobic exercise groups showed significant improvement in worry symptoms compared to the control group. (2)
A study at the University of Vermont found that 20 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (heart rate levels around 100 to 120 beats per minute) improved mood for up to 12 hours. (3)
PTSD symptoms may be helped by aerobic exercise according to a 2019 review of nineteen studies. The reviewers concluded that there is "encouraging evidence that aerobic exercise interventions alone or as an adjunct to standard treatment may positively impact PTSD symptoms. Potential mechanisms by which aerobic exercise could exert a positive impact in PTSD include exposure and desensitization to internal arousal cues, enhanced cognitive function, exercise-induced neuroplasticity, normalization of hypothalamic pituitary axis (HPA) function, and reductions in inflammatory markers." (4)
What's the Best Exercise for Anxiety and Stress Resilience?
Exercise advice commonly suggests 20 to 30 minutes most days.
What’s the best exercise to relieve stress and anxiety? . . . Whatever exercise you’ll do.
As you can see in the research section above, aerobic exercise and weight training both have the potential of reducing anxiety and relieving stress.
Make a plan today to ensure that you get physical activity into your routine. (More help on making a plan in a minute.)
Not all Exercise Happens in the Gym.
What you’re looking for is physical activity: movement.
You can try going to the gym or running for stress relief or you can do any type of exercise that gets movement into your day.
Personally, I like working out first thing in the morning so that I know I got it in for the day. If I try to fit it in later, it tends to get discarded by other demands on my time. I have a mini-trampoline in my family room so that I can watch something on TV that I recorded from the night before while I bounce around on the trampoline and use light weights to get an upper-body work-out. It's simple, easy, and efficient.
In case you aren't familiar with mini-trampolines, this is an example of a mini-trampoline on Amazon: (If you click on this link and make a purchase, I may get a small commission, but it doesn't affect your cost.)
Ways to get more movement into your everyday schedule without going to the gym could include:
- taking the stairs
- parking your car further away in the parking lot
- cleaning the house with gusto
- walking at coffee break or lunch hour
- getting outside with the kids or the dog
- playing soccer with your friends
- hula hooping
- jumping on a mini-trampoline
How to Get More Movement in Your Life
If you want to get more movement in your life -- make an exercise plan. Set yourself up for success by noticing what has worked or not worked in the past.
You can consider what works for your friends, but you are a unique person and what works for them may not work for you. That's OK.
When making an exercise plan, consider:
What time of day are you most likely to exercise?
What days of the week will most likely work to fit in movement?
What type of exercise would you like to do?
What’s a good length of time for each exercise session? (Set length of time goals for when you first begin and increases until you get to your ultimate goal.)
Every little bit helps. Even 5 minutes of activity is a step up from none.
Be kind to yourself. Don’t start by running a marathon (though if you’re already active, you may want to up your game by setting a marathon participation goal).
Life’s an experiment. As you put your plan into action, keep checking what’s working and not working. And use that learning to adjust your plan when needed.
For more info and help for anxiety, check out these products I created to help you overcome anxiety and experience stress relief:
Help to Reduce Anxiety and for Stress Relief Books
Help for Anxiety and Stress Relief Hypnosis Recordings
(1) Kandola, A., Vancampfort, D., Herring, M., Rebar, A., Hallgren, M., Firth, J., & Stubbs, B. (2018). Moving to Beat Anxiety: Epidemiology and Therapeutic Issues with Physical Activity for Anxiety. Current psychiatry reports, 20(8), 63. doi:10.1007/s11920-018-0923-x
(2) Herring, M. P., Jacob, M. L., Suveg, C., Dishman, R. K., & O’Connor, P. J. (2012). Feasibility of Exercise Training for the Short-Term Treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 81(1), 21–28. doi: 10.1159/000327898(3) Sibold, JS, Berg, KM. Mood enhancement persists for up to 12 hours following aerobic exercise: a pilot study. 2010. Perceptual and Motor Skills.
(4) Hegberg, N. J., Hayes, J. P., & Hayes, S. M. (2019). Exercise Intervention in PTSD: A Narrative Review and Rationale for Implementation. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00133
- Ann Silvers