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Treating Anxiety through Exercise

By Eileen Bailey

Treatment for anxiety normally consists of a combination of medication and cognitive behavior therapy. But for many people, another aspect of treatment might be exercise. Even a small amount of exercise can help to relieve symptoms of both anxiety and depression.

Kristin Vickers-Douglas, PhD, a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic, says of exercise, “It's not a magic bullet, but increasing physical activity is a positive and active strategy to help manage depression and anxiety." (‘Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms,” 2007, Mayo Clinic)

Exercise reduces anxiety levels; even a single exercise session or taking a brisk walk can help people to feel better. In addition, exercise can create a diversion, allowing someone to reduce symptoms by thinking of something else for a short time. Regular exercise provides these same benefits, but in addition, it can lower adrenaline levels. This not only helps during or shortly after exercise, but also can decrease the intensity of symptoms during future anxiety attacks.

Aerobic exercise has shown best results in reducing anxiety symptoms according to an article, “The Influence of Exercise on Mental Health,” by Dr. Daniel M. Landers of Arizona State University. Further, aerobic exercise improves sleep, improves the ability to cope with stress, and increases self-esteem. Dr. Landers explains the best results will appear after weeks of regular exercises, and are more apparent for those that are not fit and have high anxiety to begin with. Dr. Landers sites numerous studies to back up the theory of exercise as a way to reduce anxiety.

The Mayo Clinic offers suggestions for beginning an exercise program:

Discuss an exercise plan with your mental health professional. Besides providing support, you will be able to discuss any concerns you have, what barriers may stand in your way and give you support to keep up an exercise routine.

Set goals for yourself. Goals should be measurable and reasonable. Start small and work your way up. For example, you might want to start with ten minutes three times a week and then increase either the amount of time or the frequency. Continue to increase as you meet goals.

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