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Does exercise help with anxiety?

Updated: May 5

Anxiety affects millions of people around the world. For years, people have been looking for ways to reduce their anxiety and many believe that exercise is the answer or at the very least is one of the best methods to reduce anxiety long-term. But does exercise truly have the power to help reduce anxiety?

1. What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a complicated disorder as it doesn’t become a disorder until it is apparent in circumstances where it shouldn’t be.

Anxiety is a very normal stress reaction and you are probably familiar with feelings like “butterflies in your stomach” or “stage fright”, though we give them nicknames they are in other words anxiety. Anxiety can range in severity even in normal cases and intense anxiety is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This response is when you feel in physical danger or you are in a life-threatening position, anxiety becomes a disorder when you are experiencing this response in non-threatening circumstances like going to the shop or visiting friends.

Anxiety on this level can seem incredibly difficult to manage or recover from. It feels chaotic and spontaneous and therefore becomes overwhelming, not knowing where to start. Until you can figure out what causes the anxiety it's very difficult to manage it and it can spiral out of control; however, there are a few healthy habits you can implement to boost your energy and just put you in a better mindset to tackle it such as a set routine, starting a journal, exercise and healthy eating. These will create a better foundation to base recovery.

2. Examining the Evidence

The mental health foundation highlighted that there was a study conducted in which people were asked to rate their mood immediately after periods of physical activity (e.g. going for a walk or doing housework), and periods of inactivity (e.g. reading a book or watching television).

Researchers found that the participants felt more content, more awake and calmer after being physically active compared to after periods of inactivity. They also found that the effect of physical activity on mood was greatest when the mood was initially low. Many studies look at physical activity at different intensity levels and its impact on people’s moods. Overall, research has found that low-intensity aerobic exercise – for 30–35 minutes, 3–5 days a week, for 10–12 weeks – was best at increasing positive moods (e.g. enthusiasm, alertness).

It is worth noting that as a whole exercise is extremely beneficial both for physical and mental health, however in some cases it can be more detrimental, primarily within mental illnesses which centre around unhealthy behaviours within the diet and negative relationships with food. In these cases, exercise should be more closely monitored to make sure it is going within beneficial boundaries and doesn’t creep into an unhealthy routine.

3. Exploring the Benefits of Exercise to Reduce Anxiety

Apart from the obvious benefits that we all already know about exercise such as that it reduces your heart rate, strengthens your muscles and boosts your metabolism, several aspects of regular exercise can improve anxiety that not many people consider.

Routine and time management

As I previously mentioned, anxiety can be chaotic and completely disrupt your day before it’s even started. Exercise, especially group exercise is a great way to create some discipline and routine in your day. You might find a group setting whether than be learning a new skill like martial arts or dance to be more engaging as you are inspired to return to hone your skills and a fixed rotation of times and days will make it easier to stay in a routine. Routine is the enemy of anxiety and if you can build these healthy habits into your life, you’ll notice anxiety begin to take a step back and become replaced by willpower.

Increasing endorphins

Endorphins are chemicals our bodies produce that produce positive feelings, reduce physical pain and help regulate our emotions. By making small changes to your lifestyle, you can boost your endorphin levels and experience the happy, healthy benefits they offer. Endorphins are naturally produced by our bodies, but exercise can enhance their production and you can feel them working very quickly after finishing your workout. Endorphins will not only make you feel better in yourself but they will also boost your motivation and productivity and so begins a domino effect of chemicals making you feel better overall and your anxiety reduced.

Increased self-esteem Self-esteem is vital in combating anxiety or any mental illness. The happier you are with who you are and the more understanding you have about yourself and your condition you will begin to treat exercise as a self-care practice necessary to recover. Self-esteem can be tied into not only how confident you are mentally but also your positive body image and this is where exercise comes in. The endorphins take care of the happy mood, but you may find that the more exercise you take, the more confidence you gain in your skin.


Exercise is not just a solo endeavour; you might be the type of person who loves the occasional “me time” with just you and the open road, but making exercise a social activity as well can boost your mood regularly. If you choose a type of exercise in class that you enjoy, you already have one thing in common with everyone else there, perfect for starting new friendships. We don’t tend to realise how much we crave the presence of other people until our mental health starts to take a hit and we start to feel lethargic, lonely, or depressed it can be very difficult to make plans with friends regularly so being in a social environment and pairing it with exercise is a great way to get a dose of both.

4. Tips for Getting Started

Getting into a new exercise routine can be daunting especially if you are fairly sedentary or like many of us now, working from home. The “get up and go” can be incredibly difficult, no matter how many times you promise yourself you’ll do it today! Planning is often the key to success and choosing an exercise that is at a certain time and place can help you get that push.

1. Speak to friends and family about what exercise routine they are in, and whether they would recommend any classes, gyms or routes.

2. Look at your schedule, be realistic about what times and what days you think you could fit in a workout and compare that to a class rota or your gym's busiest times.

3. Set yourself goals, there are loads of positive goals you can set for yourself that aren’t as difficult as “losing weight”, you might start just trying to achieve a particular level of flexibility, be able to lift a heavier weight or do more reps. You could choose to reward yourself if you achieve these smaller goals (e.g. putting a pound in the pot for every weight bracket you go up)

4. Get a Fitbit or smart tracker (If you can’t afford one of the super snazzy ones, you can always pick up a second-hand one) These trackers are excellent for motivation and routine. You can really see your progress every day and some of them will even track your skin temperature, irregular heart rhythms and oxygen saturation; so it’s an all-around health aid!

Final Thoughts

There is extensive and ongoing evidence to suggest that exercise can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety. Exercise not only has physical health benefits, but also has mental health benefits such as reducing stress levels, improving mood, and helping with better sleep. While exercise may not be a cure-all for anxiety, it is certainly worth considering as a tool in your anxiety management toolbox.

If you are interested in exploring how exercise can help reduce anxiety, consider talking to a therapist or healthcare provider who can provide you with additional tips and guidance.

Have a look at classes and gyms in your local area, find out whether your friends recommend anywhere or map out running/walk tracks nearby. You can make it fit around you.

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