Health: Can Exercise Help Treat Anxiety?
A little cardio can go a long way
Chances are good that you, or someone you know, is dealing with anxiety. One in five Americans over 18, and one in three teenagers 13 to 18, reported having a chronic anxiety disorder during the past year. And when I talk to college students, they’re not at all surprised that a whopping 63% of students felt tremendous anxiety during their freshman year, according to a report by the National College Health Association.
The toll of anxiety can be high: It increases a person’s risk for other psychiatric disorders like depression, and it 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 sneakers and getting out and moving may be the single best non-medical solution we have for preventing and treating anxiety.
As a psychiatrist who studies the effects of exercise on the brain, I’ve not only seen the science, I’ve witnessed firsthand 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.
How does exercise help ease anxiety?
- Engaging in exercise diverts you from the very thing you are anxious about.
- Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious.
- Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals. The includes serotonin; gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA); brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF); and endocannabinoids.
- Exercise activates frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function; this helps control the amygdala, our reacting system to real or imagined threats to our survival.
- Exercising regularly builds up resources that bolster resilience against stormy emotions.
So, exactly how much exercise does one need to protect against episodes of anxiety and anxiety disorders? While pinpointing this is not easy, a recent meta-analysis in the journal Anxiety-Depression found that people with anxiety disorders who reported high-level physical activity were better protected against developing anxiety symptoms than those who reported low physical activity. Bottom line: when it comes to treating anxiety, more exercise is better.
However, if you’re just starting out, don’t despair. Some research also shows that just a single bout of exercise can help ease anxiety when it strikes.
Which type of exercise you choose may not matter greatly. Studies point to the effectiveness of everything from tai chi to high-intensity interval training. People experienced improvement no matter which types of activity they tried. Even general physical activity is helpful. Similarly, the important thing is to try activities and keep doing them.
To maximize the benefits:
- Choose something enjoyable so you will do it repeatedly, building resilience.
- Work toward getting your heart rate up.
- Work out with a friend or in a group to reap the added benefit of social support.
- If possible, exercise in nature or green space, which further lowers stress and anxiety.
Scientific studies are important, sure; but you don’t need to consult a chart, statistics, or an expert to know how good you feel after working up a sweat. Remember those feelings and use them as motivation to do something physical every day. In short: time to get up and get moving!
John J. Ratey, M.D., is a contributor to Harvard Health Publishing.
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