Exercise and anxiety:
how it helps
Exercise improves your general health.
Aerobic exercise pumps your blood full of oxygen feeding your brain and body encouraging more efficient cell growth. Over time your lung capacity and breathing improves. Exercise also reduces LDL cholesterol, the kind that clogs arteries. It reduces your blood pressure, relieving stress on your heart; improves your insulin sensitivity and improves heart muscle function. In short, exercise makes you feel healthier, reducing your overall sensitivity to stress.
Exercise does great things for your brain.
Exercise increases levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine that work to enhance your brain function and cognitive ability. Over time exercise helps the brain build more dopamine receptors making you more prone to good moods. Exercise also releases endorphins and activates your endocabbinoids and these work to reduce your sense of pain and improve your emotional state. Recent research also shows that exercise encourages the growth of a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) associated with improved learning and cognitive function.
Exercise makes you feel more confident and in control.
Complex exercise like tennis, Pilates, karate or boxing challenges your brain to focus, concentrate and learn. It encourages self-mastery and gives you a sense of self-achievement. Resistance training helps you to improve your balance and overall muscular strength. This helps build self-confidence and courage. You begin to feel super human.
Exercise forces out intruding and worrying thoughts.
Making exercise part of your weekly routine gives you a fun interest and a form of regular diversion. Like all good hobbies, exercise helps you escape the stresses and strains of the daily grind.
The smart way to beat anxiety
Three types of exercise work together to calm anxiety:
Medium-to-intense aerobic exercise to jolt the brain and stimulate mood-enhancing neurotransmitters.
Resistance-based exercises that improve muscle and skeletal strength and balance.
Technically complex exercises that improve focus and cognitive function
Aerobic exercises for improved heart, body and brain function boosting physical and mental performance
Resistance exercises for improved balance, muscular strength and confidence
Complex technical exercises for improved focus, concentration and learning
Further reading on exercising for anxiety
There is a growing amount of research exploring the connection between exercise and anxiety. Here is a selected bibliography:
Beneficial effects of exercise on depression and anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic: A Narrative Review. Shaojuan Hu, Lorelei Tucker, Chongyun Wu and Luodan Yang, Psychiatry, November 2020
Can exercise help treat anxiety? John J Ratey, Harvard Health, October 2019
Conquering depression and anxiety through exercise. Keith Johnsgard, Prometheus Books 2004
Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity. J Broman-Fulks, M Berman, B Rabian, M Webster, Behaviour Research and Therapy, February 2004
Evidence for exercise therapy in the treatment of depression and anxiety. Jan Knapen and Davy Vancampfort, International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation, January 2014
Exercise for mood and anxiety. Michael Otto and Jasper Smits, Oxford University Press 2013
Feasibility of exercise training for the short-term treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. M Herring, M Jacob, C Suveg, R Dishman, P O'Connor, Psychotherapy & Psychosomatics, 2012
Regular exercise, anxiety, depression and personality. M De Moor, A Beem, J Stubbe, D Boomsma, E De Geus, Preventative Medicine, April 2006
Spark. the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. John R Ratey. Little, Brown and Co. 2008
The acute effects of exercise on mood state. R Yeung, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, February 1996
The anxiolytic effects of exercise: a meta-analysis of randomized trials and dose-response analysis. B Wipfli, C Rethorst, D Landers, Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, August 2008
The joy of movement Kelly McGonigal, Penguin Books 2019