Why It’s Smart to Stay Active When You Have OCD

by Meryl Davids Landau Health Writer

You may not be able to hide from your obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms, but research is showing that you might literally be able to run, walk, or downward-dog away from them. In fact, more and more research is showing that aerobic exercise and even certain forms of yoga can help soothe the intrusive thoughts, images, and compulsions that the brain pumps out on repeat.

woman in talk therapy session

The Important Precautions

Before we jump into the details, there are a couple things to keep in mind:

  1. OCD requires comprehensive treatment, and that often means cognitive-behavioral therapy or other psychotherapy plus medication. This isn’t about using exercise alone to manage your symptoms.

  2. If you happen to be someone who has a history of over-exercising, say, to control your weight or your OCD symptoms, especially if you also have anorexia nervosa (a common tagalong with OCD), increased physical activity may not be for you. Bottom line: Always talk to your providers before leaping into a new fitness program.

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Aerobic Activity Can Help Long-term…

Ana Abrantes, Ph.D., codirector of behavioral medicine and addictions research at Butler Hospital in Providence, R.I., has been studying exercise’s effects on OCD for several years.

One pilot study she led a few years back found that people with OCD who do moderate-intensity aerobic exercises in addition to taking medicines and/or doing psychotherapy get better results after a few months than people who don’t exercise, according to the report in General Hospital Psychiatry. Thirty percent experienced significant reduction in the severity of their OCD symptoms, as well as in their levels of depression and anxiety.

While Abrantes says research has not yet revealed the mechanism behind why this regular exercise helps, it’s possible that moving the body creates new neurons in the brain, a process known as neurogenesis.

The results of Abrantes’ study were so intriguing that Abrantes and her team continued to investigate.

woman on treadmill

...and Exercise Can Help in the Moment

This time the researchers used the same data to examine the immediate effects of exercise on OCD—as it turns out, this was the first randomized-controlled trial look at this relationship. Before and after participants jumped on a treadmill, stationary bike, or did their heart-pumping activity of choice, they rated their mood, anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions. To compare, they had another group of people with OCD report their mood status before and after seeing a health educator.

The walkers, bikers, and movers-of-all-kinds had significantly higher levels of immediate improvement compared to those who simply received health counseling, according the study, which was published in 2019 in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

People said doing that each exercise session helped them:

  • Boost their mood.
  • Lower their anxiety.
  • And reduce the urge to engage in compulsions.

“What’s so great about these results is they showed that a single bout of exercise can make a difference,” Abrantes says. This may be because exercise forced participants to focus on their body, distracting them from obsessive thoughts.

Man tying sneakers

Physical Activity Can Be an Instant Coping Mechanism

Experts already know an exercise session can bring immediate gains for everyone. Your ability to think better, sleep better, and lower your blood pressure all happen in the short term after you take up a physical activity.

But people with OCD might get an extra benefit: the immediate stopping of symptoms. That’s why Abrantes say you should think about physical activity as a coping strategy. “If you’re struggling with a compulsion, going out for some exercise could decrease that urge,” she says.

Study participants did a minimum of 20 minutes, but Abrantes speculates that even shorter bursts might be beneficial. Just 5 or 10 minutes of movement could potentially improve your mood and other OCD symptoms, she suggests, based on research for other mental health conditions.

So if your mood dips or compulsive thoughts are bubbling, lace up your sneakers and take a little walk or brisk run, or move in any way you enjoy. You might distract yourself enough to feel better.

You Reap the Ripple Effects of Exercise

Of course, exercising on a regular basis brings many health benefits. Moving 150 to 300 minutes a week (that’s 30 to 60 minutes, 5 days a week) has been proven to be one of the most powerful health helpers.

Over time, having a regular exercise routine improves your heart health, reduces high blood pressure, lowers your odds of getting certain cancers, boosts bone health, and helps you lose weight.

Exercise can also help you sleep better and enhance your cognitive functioning–things that are especially valuable to people with OCD, Abrantes says, since trouble sleeping or thinking straight often comes with the territory.

Gentle Exercise May Help OCD Symptoms Too

In addition to aerobics, other forms of exercise may also benefit people with OCD. Although there haven’t been good-quality studies of yoga and OCD, some think its precise movements and directed focus make its poses well-suited for dealing with symptoms.

“I especially recommend yoga practices that slow you down and encourage you to be mindful,” says yoga instructor Stephanie Spence, who regularly works with people with mental-health conditions in her Coronado, CA, studio and as an international workshop leader.

Spence, who’s also the author the award-winning book Yoga Wisdom, a believes that yin yoga, restorative yoga, or a gentle hatha class, can help you to observe—and therefore distance yourself from—your troublesome thought patterns.

yoga class doing forward fold

You Can Start With a Simple Forward Fold

One pose in this style is a slow forward fold, known in Sanskrit as paschimottanasana.

Begin by sitting on a mat, the bed, or the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. If that’s uncomfortable, bend your knees a little. Inhale slowly as you raise your arms above your head, feeling yourself stretching upward. As you exhale, slowly hinge forward from your hips, reaching your arms and torso out in front of you. When you have stretched as far forward as possible, relax your head, neck, and chest. Drop your hands wherever they comfortably reach, whether that’s your feet, shins, or thighs.

Keep your awareness on your lower back and legs, and on your breath as you quietly breathe in and out. If you’re comfortable, you can periodically raise your torso a few inches and extend over a little more before relaxing down again.

“The key is focusing on the ease and on the effort without pushing yourself,” Spence says. “Watch your breath so you stay present to the experience.”

Hold the pose for up to 3 minutes (shorter if you’re uncomfortable). Exit by inhaling and raising your hands and torso up to the ceiling before lowering your arms.

Woman lying down in deep back stretch

Then Try a Deep Back Stretch

Another gentle pose often used in restorative yoga classes is a deep back stretch. You’ll need a bolster or bed pillow to help you open into the pose.

Begin by sitting on the floor or bed with the bolster or pillow situated longways behind you. Bend your knees and place your feet flat. Lean back onto your elbows and then continue pushing yourself back until your head and shoulders are on the floor or bed while your back remains on the bolster. Release your legs straight out and stretch your arms to the side. (You can keep your knees bent if that’s more comfortable.)

Bring your awareness to how open your torso is. Hold this pose, breathing naturally, for 3 to 5 minutes as you release into the stretch. To come out, bend your knees and plant your feet. Press on your hands and feet and slightly lift your buttocks. Push aside the bolster and lie flat.

Young sporty woman in nadi shodhana pranayama pose

Finally, Experiment With Yogic Breathing

Spence also recommends that people with OCD try a slow breath practice, known as pranayama. Because you have to keep your attention on the breath, these exercises may prevent unhelpful thoughts from intruding, says Spence. Research has also shown that breathwork can help calm the nervous system and help reduce anxiety.

A good one to start with is alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana. “This breath is calming and peaceful, but it’s complicated enough that it requires your focus on what you’re doing,” Spence says.

Begin by sitting up straight and closing your eyes. Make a loose fist with your right hand, then release your thumb and last two fingers. Gently press the right thumb over your right nostril to close it off, while you exhale slowly through the left nostril, counting to four, five, or even more. Inhale slowly through the left nostril, taking about half the time as the prior exhalation. Now release your thumb and close your left nostril with your ring finger. Exhale through the right nostril to a slow count again. Inhale through the right nostril.

Continue alternating exhales and inhales through the various sides of the nose for several minutes, eventually working up to 5 or 10 minutes.

A similar breathing practice, but using only the left nostril to inhale and exhale and for a longer period of time, was part of a small pilot study documenting how Kundalini yoga exercises help people with OCD, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine.

What’s so perfect about trying these exercises is that you can do them anywhere, anytime. Give them a go when your symptoms are well-managed. That way, you’ll have the routine down when you want to try them in the moment.

Meryl Davids Landau
Meet Our Writer
Meryl Davids Landau

Meryl Davids Landau is an award-winning health writer whose work has appeared in national magazines and websites, including Prevention, Vice, and Glamour. She is also a novelist whose books include the mindfulness/yoga women’s novels Warrior Won and Downward Dog, Upward Fog.