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How Exercise May Help Reduce Your Anxiety

When you have anxiety or depression, slipping on a pair of runners and heading to the gym may feel like the last thing you want to do. Being motivated can seem an overwhelming task when you’re depressed, but as they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Depression and anxiety wanes motivation, so if the idea of the gym repels you, don’t berate yourself. Do, however, familiarise yourself with the benefits of exercise to better understand how slipping on those runners could be the best thing for you.

Exercise and anxiety

Exercise has long been proven as beneficial to high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, obesity, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. What you might not know, however, is that it’s also proven to reduce anxiety and depression.

The links between anxiety, depression and exercise aren’t exactly clear, but what we know is that working out and other forms of physical exercise can definitely ease symptoms. Exercise may even keep your anxiety and depression away once you’re feeling better.

Studies tell us that exercise is crucial for maintaining mental fitness and reducing stress. They tell us that exercise reduces fatigue, improves alertness and concentration, and strengthens cognitive function. This is particularly important when stress has caused your motivation levels to drop.

Stress affects the brain, and when the brain is under pressure by stress, the rest of your body feels it too. Make your brain feel better by releasing ‘feel good’ endorphins encouraged by exercise, and suddenly everything else gets a positive boost too. The science doesn’t have to be clear to know that exercise can work wonders.

What we know about exercise and anxiety

Broadly, regular exercise results in physiological changes. Within five minutes, the body generally starts to feel better – what’s known as the “mood-enhancement effect”. Not restricted to short term, mood enhancing exercise can help alleviate long-term anxiety and depression.

According to Duke University clinical psychologist James Blumenthal, PhD, there’s “good epidemiological data” to suggest that active people suffer with less anxiety and depression than those who are inactive. This data comes through a series of randomised controlled trials, and concludes that exercise is comparable to antidepressants.

Additional reasons why exercise can help are:

Reduced immune system chemicals

Anxiety has a complicated relationship with the immune system. When you’re under stress, immune cells travel to the brain and activate the regions associated with panic, part the fight or flight response. Monocyte cells (produced by bone marrow during times of stress) can wreak particular havoc, evoking action in the fear regions of your brain. With fear regions overactive, your anxiety takes full form.

Increased body temperature

When your metabolism slows down due to inactivity it can lower your body temperature too. This makes you more vulnerable to adrenaline surges that come with even the smallest amount of stress. Low body temperature impairs the body’s ability to produce important calming neurotransmitters, including GABA and serotonin.

Increased confidence

Getting in shape makes you feel better about your appearance and each time you reach a goal or meet a challenge, you’ll gain a boost in self-confidence. The more confident you are in your capabilities, the less anxiety you should feel.


Exercise takes your mind off the cycle of negative thoughts that fuel anxiety and depression. Slip on some headphones when you go for a jog or exercise somewhere with plenty of stimuli to anchor yourself in reality. Focus on the workings of your muscles and there’s less room for negative or anxious thoughts to creep in.

Social interaction

Exercise often comes with social interaction, be it a smile as you jog past or the assistance of a fellow gym-goer as you lift weights. Gym classes are an excellent way to meet people and you’re pretty much guaranteed that attendees will be happy. How could you not be when you’ve willed yourself into action?

Used energy

A frequently cited reason for anxiety is unused energy. Your body wants to move and when you are sedentary for too long it creates tension. Think of a dog that’s highly strung when not regularly walked. Because they are not working out their energy, their energy turns into physical tension.

Note: There are secondary components that may be contributing factors too. Increased inactivity often means enjoying less experiences, and positive experiences are good for leveling out anxiety. Inactivity can also lead to small health problems that create anxiety on their own.

How much exercise do you need?

Psychologists studying how exercise relieves anxiety believe that a 10-minute walk is just as beneficial as a 45-minute workout. Ten minutes of brisk walking is enough to elevate mood for several hours, an effect similar to taking aspirin for a headache. The effects may be temporary, but walk everyday and the likelihood of your anxiety returning gets smaller. The brain soon learns there are coping mechanisms for anxiety, making you better equipped to manage stress.

Have even less time that 10 minutes? Studies tell us that five minutes of running creates lasting changes in serotonin and norepinephrine and that the repetitive motions of running appear to have a meditative effect on the brain. This meditation effect promotes the growth of new neurons in the brain, alleviating the risks of major depressive disorder.

Where to exercise

Hit nature trails for your run or walk and add to the meditative effect even further. Nature has a calming effect on the mind and there is evidence that suggests plants and trees (especially decaying trees) can help reduce anxiety because of the chemicals they emit. The chemicals are designed to slow down the process of decay, but they also work to slow you down too as you exercise.

Things to remember

The important thing to remember when exercising to alleviate anxiety is that consistency is key. The body is the mind and the mind is your body. Take care of yourself with exercise and you take care of your whole body system.

Stress and anxiety are normal parts of life. But anxiety disorders, which affect over two million Australians every year, need to be addressed. Before you let your anxiety run wild, speak with a professional psychologist at CFHP. Our psychologists work with your strengths in order to decrease your difficulties or limitations and can increase your overall satisfaction with life. Add exercise to the mix, and take control.

Delany Skerrett | CFHP
Delaney Skerrett

Delaney is a senior registered psychologist working with people of all backgrounds and with a special interest in LGBTI+ people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and Indigenous people.

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