Yep, Exercise Can Help Reduce Anxiety (Like, Right Now)

Medically reviewed by Daniel Bubnis, M.S., NASM-CPT, NASE Level II-CSS — Written by Jessica Booth on July 24, 2020PIN IT

Created for Greatist by the experts at Healthline. Read more

There are tons of anxiety treatments out there. But what if you want to reduce your stress levels, like, yesterday? Here’s how working out can curb your anxious feelings.

reduce anxiety with exercise

How does it actually work?

Working out 101

Simply put, exercise causes your brain to release feel-good chemicals. This helps boost energy and decreases stress levels. Working out can also alleviate feelings of depression and negativity, according to a 2020 study.

Happy chemicals

In the immortal words of Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.”

Exercise does indeed spur the release of endorphins and decrease your levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Working out also produces brain chemicals called endocannabinoids — the same chemicals mimicked by cannabis. The increased dopamine levels might make you feel more optimistic.

Full body buzz

Exercise can work wonders for your noggin. Research shows exercise activates frontal regions of the brain that help control the amygdala. This can relieve pent-up feelings of tension, stress, and anxiety.

Regular exercise can also change the default state of your nervous system, making it more balanced. When you work out, your muscles release lactate. This changes the way you react to things that might normally cause anxiety.

What about panic attacks?

Studies show people who exercise regularly may be more resistant to acute anxiety. In some cases, exercise can decrease the intensity and frequency of panic attacks — heck yes!

5 workouts to calm anxiety

Any kind of exercise can have positive mental health effects. Still, you might prefer some workouts more than others. Here are some awesome options.

1. Running

Ever heard of a “runner’s high”? It’s somewhat legit. Running can calm your mind and have a lasting impact on feel-good neurotransmitters. Researchers believe this is because runners have the aerobic capacity to hold a steady pace for a long time. 

Building up your fitness level through regular running may also help protect against depression. Some research suggests that low cardiorespiratory fitness levels contribute to the onset of depression.

What does the science say?

In a small 2008 study, ultramarathoners, moderate regular exercisers, and nonexercisers walked or ran for 30 minutes. Everyone’smood improved after just one session.

Keep in mind that it might take some training before you can hit the high. Your body needs time to build stamina.

2. Yoga

Research shows a steady yoga practice can significantly reduce anxiety, stress, and symptoms of depression. 

Best benefits of yoga

2018 study found that yoga can increase mindfulness and feelings of satisfaction with life. The same study also found that yoga can:

  • lower heart rate
  • lower blood pressure
  • reduce stress responses
  • prevent anxiety and depression
  • increase energy and feelings of well-being

It’s also an awesome way to reduce anxiety while developing strength and breathing stamina.

3. Tai chi

This ancient Chinese martial art includes meditation and rhythmic breathing. One study found that tai chi can:

  • promote relaxation
  • lower blood pressure
  • reduce stress and anxiety
  • improve a depressed mood
  • increase endorphin levels

Meditate on it

Regular exercise provides mental health benefits similar to meditation.

4. A walk in the great outdoors

Whether you’re going for a nature walk or doing yoga in your yard, outdoor exercise has additional mental health benefits. A 2015 study found that young adults who went on a 50-minute nature walk felt less anxious afterward.

Nature perks

2009 study found that participants who did a 20-minute nature walk had lower stress hormone levels than participants who were in the city.

Time in nature can:

  • lower pulse rate
  • lower blood pressure
  • lower levels of cortisol
  • lower sympathetic nerve activity

5. Make it a family affair

Happy hour is great, but exercising together is bomb. A 2017 studyfound that group movement releases endorphins. Research has also found that exercising with friends motivates us to develop healthy behaviors. Double win!

Give these group workouts a go:

  • yoga
  • cycling
  • walking
  • hiking
  • biking
  • dance
  • kickboxing
  • water aerobics

Keep it moving

You don’t need to commit to hour-long workout seshes on the daily. Research suggests that exercising for about 30 minutes three or four times per week can be enough to improve mood.

Motivation tips:

  • Do something you enjoy. If you hate your workout, you’re not going to put your all into it. Pick an activity that keeps your attention. 
  • Don’t consider it a chore. Instead, view it as a way to feel happier and more confident. 
  • Find distractions. A 30-minute session on the elliptical will fly by when you’re watching a TV show or rocking out to a bangin’ playlist. 
  • Work out with a friend.Group workouts can increase feelings of joy. Planning exercise dates will also hold you more accountable. 
  • Put it in your planner.Make it feel like something you can’t miss instead of a last-minute decision. 
  • Work out where you feel comfortable. You don’t have to join a gym. You can have a killer workout in the comfort of your own home.
  • Be patient with the process. Set small, realistic goals. This will motivate you to hit your targets and keep going strong.

Try a different approach

Is exercise not cutting it? Don’t worry. Working out isn’t your only option. There are other ways to reduce anxiety ASAP.

Progressive relaxation

This technique can be uber-relaxing. Research has shown it’s an effective way to ease anxiety and depression.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Tense and release each muscle group in your body, starting at your toes and working your way up.
  2. Try to keep your mind space clear.
  3. Focus on your breath.

Four-square breathing

Four-square breathing (aka box breathing) is a mindful breath exercise. It can help you chill out ASAP.

Try this:

  1. Sit upright.
  2. Slowly inhale through your nose.
  3. Hold your breath for a slow count of four.
  4. Slowly exhale through your mouth.
  5. Hold your breath for a count of four.
  6. Repeat as needed.

Listen to your favorite song

What’s a song that makes you feel happy no matter what? Turn it up! Research suggests music can lower levels of cortisol and ease stress and anxiety.

Write it out

Journaling can be therapeutic AF. Writing out your thoughts is a good way to explore what you’re feeling. This can help you process the roots of your anxiety.

Get creative

Art therapy can reduce stress and help you manage negative emotions. Do anything that tickles your creative fancy. Grab an adult coloring book, play an instrument, paint, or take an online art class.null

One step at a time

If you’re feeling that anxious itch, a workout might be just what you need to de-stress. Science says working out may help lessen anxiety while giving you a boost of energy.

The goal is to feel better, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself if you’re not up for a full workout. Start slow, experiment with types of movement, and enjoy the ride.

Resistance exercise linked to reduced depression symptoms

Most prior research focused more on aerobic exercise like running rather than strength training
Posted: June 14, 2018

Fighting Obesity
A range of exercises may be able to help ease depression and other mood disorders. (Jeff Gentner/Associated Press)
People who do resistance exercises like weight lifting and strength training may experience fewer depression symptoms, a research review suggests.

The study team analyzed data from 33 clinical trials that randomly assigned a total of 947 adults to participate in resistance training programs and another 930 adults to be inactive.

Resistance workouts were associated with fewer depression symptoms regardless of whether participants had a physical or mental health problem, although the effect was most pronounced in adults with mild to moderate depression, the study team reports in JAMA Psychiatry.

“Previous reviews have shown that exercise training of all types improves depressive symptoms among otherwise healthy adults, adults with a variety of medical conditions, and adults with major depressive disorder,” said lead author Brett Gordon, a researcher at the University of Limerick in Ireland.

Most prior research, however, has focused more on aerobic exercise like running and cycling rather than on resistance workouts like weight lifting and strength training, Gordon said by email.

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“In the trials included in our work, the effect of resistance exercise training on depressive symptoms did not significantly vary based on the features of the resistance exercise training, such as frequency or intensity,” Gordon added.

On average, the resistance training programs in the small trials included in the current study lasted about 16 weeks, although they ranged in duration from 6 to 52 weeks.

Stay active long term

Most often, the programs included three weekly exercise sessions, although some had only two and others had as many as seven sessions per week. Many of the resistance training programs included supervised workouts alone or in combination with some unsupervised sessions.

In the subset of smaller trials that tracked whether people completed exercise programs as directed, the adherence rate was 78 per cent. Some other trials reported only attendance, and this ranged from 88 per cent to 94 per cent.

We should not strive to make it a contest between aerobic exercise and resistance training. Both are essential to successful aging and independent living.

  • Dianna Purvis Jaffin
    Resistance training was associated with a reduction in depression symptoms regardless of how often people exercised. It also didn’t appear to matter whether participants experienced improvements in strength or gains in muscle mass.

Even though the smaller trials in the analysis were controlled experiments designed to prove whether resistance training might be better than inactivity for easing depression, these trials still didn’t determine if exercise might work best alone, combined with medication or psychotherapy, or as an alternative to those treatments. The study also didn’t compare the effects of resistance training to aerobic exercise or other types of workouts.

Moreover, several trials in the analysis did not track whether people who were prescribed antidepressants took these medications as directed, and this might independently influence the magnitude of any changes in depression symptoms associated with exercise.

Even so, the results add to evidence that a range of exercises may be able to help ease depression and other mood disorders, said Dianna Purvis Jaffin of the Brain Performance Institute at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“The underlying message is to stay active, in whatever manner an individual will adhere to over the long-term,” Jaffin, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“We should not strive to make it a contest between aerobic exercise and resistance training,” Jaffin added. “Both are essential to successful aging and independent living.”