Stress, Anxiety, and Exercise

  • Seven out of ten adults in the United States say they experience stress or anxiety daily, and most say it interferes at least moderately with their lives, according to the most recent ADAA survey on stress and anxiety disorders.

    During National Stress Øut Week (November 9–15, 2008), sponsored by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, it’s a good time to relax and discover the difference between everyday stress and an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a normal reaction that keeps you from harm’s way and prepares you to act quickly in the face of danger. But some 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder, experiencing anxiety that is persistent, irrational, and overwhelming—and that interferes with daily life.

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    It’s impossible to eliminate stress, but you can learn to manage it, and most people usually do. According to a recent ADAA online poll, some 14 percent of people make use of regular exercise to cope with stress. While there are other effective coping techniques, exercise may be the one most recommended by health care professionals.


    Exercising Body and Mind

    National Stress Øut Week highlights the benefits of physical activity in reducing stress. When stress affects the brain, the rest of the body feels the impact, too. So when your body feels better, so does your mind. Physical activity produces endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and also improves the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress. Conventional wisdom holds that a workout of low to moderate intensity makes you feel energized and healthy.

    Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.

    Relationship of Exercise to Anxiety Disorders
    The benefits of exercise may well extend beyond physical health and stress relief to improving the symptoms of anxiety and related disorders, including depression. Some studies show that exercise can work quickly to elevate a depressed mood temporarily in many people. A brisk ten-minute walk can deliver several hours of relief, much like taking an aspirin for a headache.

    Science has also provided some evidence that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. In one study, researchers found that those who got regular vigorous exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over five years.

    Exercise as Part of Therapy
    Exercise is often part of a treatment program for anxiety disorders. People may feel powerless in terms of home life, finances, or politics, but they’re in control when they exercise.


    Like all forms of therapy, though, the effects of exercise can vary: Some people may respond positively, others may find it doesn’t improve their mood much, and some may experience only a modest short-term benefit.


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    This much is a good reason to get off the couch: Exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. So the less sedentary we are, the more efficient our bodies become in responding to stress, anxiety, and depression.


    Find out more about managing stress and anxiety and staying mentally and physically fit during National Stress Øut Week—and throughout the year.

    You can help others manage stress and anxiety: Receive ADAA’s unique 18-month desk calendar “Women Talk: Open the Dialogue – Triumph Over Anxiety Disorders,” when you make a donation of $25 or more. The calendar features stress-release tips and inspirational personal stories. And it never goes out of date because it starts when you write the months. Here’s how.

    PLEASE NOTE: The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) does not endorse or promote any specific medications or treatments.

Published On: November 11, 2008