When you have anxiety or depression, exercise often seems like the last thing you want to do. But once you get motivated, exercise can make a big difference.
The toll of anxiety can be high: it increases a person’s risk for other psychiatric disorders like depression, and can contribute to diabetes and cardiovascular problems. One sobering study shows that people with anxiety tend to be more sedentary and do less intense forms of physical activity, if any. That’s ironic, because lacing up your trainers and getting out and moving may be the single best nonmedical solution we have for preventing and treating anxiety.
John J. Ratey, MD says “As a psychiatrist who studies the effects of exercise on the brain, I’ve not only seen the science, I’ve witnessed first-hand how physical activity affects my patients. Research shows aerobic exercise is especially helpful. A simple bike ride, dance class, or even a brisk walk can be a powerful tool for those suffering from chronic anxiety. Activities like these also help people who are feeling overly nervous and anxious about an upcoming test, a big presentation, or an important meeting.”
John J. Ratey, MD, is the author of the book ‘Spark‘. This new scientific revolution will teach you how to boost brain cells, protect yourself against mental illness and dementia, and ensure success in exams and the workplace. The book Spark will change the way you think about exercise – and, for that matter, the way you think.’
How does exercise help anxiety and depression?
Regular exercise may help ease anxiety and depression by:
- Releasing feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being.
- Taking your mind off worries so you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety
Regular exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits, too. It can help you:
- Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
- Get more social interaction. Exercise and physical activity may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.
- Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage depression or anxiety is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how you feel, or hoping depression or anxiety will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.
Is a structured exercise program the only option?
Some research shows that physical activity such as regular walking — not just formal exercise programs — may help improve mood. Physical activity and exercise are not the same thing, but both are beneficial to your health.
- Physical activity is any activity that works your muscles and requires energy and can include work or household or leisure activities.
- Exercise is a planned, structured and repetitive body movement done to improve or maintain physical fitness.
The word “exercise” may make you think of running laps around the gym. But exercise includes a wide range of activities that boost your activity level to help you feel better.
Certainly running, lifting weights, playing basketball and other fitness activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can physical activity such as gardening, washing your car, walking around the block or engaging in other less intense activities. Any physical activity that gets you off the couch and moving can help improve your mood.
You don’t have to do all your exercise or other physical activity at once. Broaden how you think of exercise and find ways to add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park a little farther away from work to fit in a short walk. Or, if you live close to your job, consider biking to work.
How much is enough?
Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. But smaller amounts of physical activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — may make a difference. It may take less time exercising to improve your mood when you do more-vigorous activities, such as running or bicycling.
The mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity may last only if you stick with it over the long term — another good reason to focus on finding activities that you enjoy!