Working out for anxiety | 7 scientifically proven ways working out can help

Created by Sarah Williams

Last Updated: February 11, 2022

You don’t have to live with the intense irritation, sweat, and feeling of carrying the weight of the whole world on your shoulders. Anxiety often has many symptoms. The most intense is the feeling of blood rushing through your veins and your heart trying to escape from your ribcage. However, you can always divert this restlessness into productive activities that will help to improve your overall physical and mental well-being. Have you considered working out for anxiety?

According to statistics, 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have been diagnosed with anxiety, while one in three aged 13-18 is diagnosed with chronic anxiety disorder. Most of these cases stem from complications in early childhood and college life. Also, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 40 million American adults, roughly 18% of the population, have an anxiety disorder. 

Scientifically proven ways working out can help alleviate anxiety

Exercise doesn’t just serve to build bodily muscles or ease physical pain. It can also help to improve your mindfulness and mental well-being. Imagine being able to clear your head of those anxious thoughts just by running some laps or pumping out a few reps. 

Many people battling anxiety and other related mental health disorders such as depression have reported feeling better by doing little exercises like taking a stroll or just breathing exercises. 

Ironically, people suffering from anxiety often dread physical activities, even the tiniest task such as leaving indoors. However, working out for anxiety through activities like a brisk walk, bike rides, and other aerobic exercises are powerful in helping to curb anxiety.

Exercise is not only done to build body muscle and ease physical pain, it is also done to maintain physical and mental well-being and alleviate anxiety. 

Below are seven ways that are scientifically proven through which working out can help you to alleviate anxiety:

How working out can help alleviate anxiety-woman doing yoga in park

1. Working out can help relieve stress 

The Global Organization for Stress reports that 75 percent of Americans experienced moderate to high-stress levels in the past month, and 80 percent of people feel stress at work. Exercise can be a release for people when they are stressed

After a long day of work or school, or when you are feeling anxious for no reason, moving your body can help you let go of those feelings and prevent them from developing into deeper feelings of anxiety. While studying for a presentation at work or a test at school, pacing or other physical exercises pumps endorphins. These are “happy hormones” that leave you refreshed and more confident to face the task at hand. Lastly, working out for anxiety helps to work away the restless energy resulting from concern build-up. 

working out for anxiety and stress relief-happy woman hiking and posing on rock

2. Working out can enhance good sleep

Lack of quality sleep has been shown to increase rates of anxiety up to 30%, especially among women. According to statistics, in America, 70% of adults report that they obtain insufficient sleep at least one night a month, and 11% report insufficient sleep every night. Anxiety can also make it harder to sleep. 

Exercise can help with both of these situations. Working your muscles hard naturally makes you more tired. It requires an immense amount of energy, so your body will be more prepared to fall asleep at night. Deep sleep reduces anxiety by performing operations similar to a “Brain Reset”. During this resetting, the brain’s emotional regulatory areas are strengthened while emotional and physiological reactivity lowers. 

working out can improve anxiety through better sleep-woman sleeping

3. Working out can help with distraction and reduce overthinking

It is all too easy to get caught up in your thoughts when living with anxiety. One thought can lead to many more and lead to extreme anxiety and the inability to calm yourself down. Working out for anxiety, whether you go to the gym on your own, attend an exercise class, go for a jog outside, or engage in any other form of exercise, is a great way to distract your mind and stop yourself from getting caught up in worrisome thoughts. 

While exercising, your mind will concentrate more on your body’s movements. This gives you a well-deserved break from the thoughts that make you feel anxious. Sometimes, distracting yourself and having a good workout is enough to stop anxious thoughts. 

[Read more about the mind-body connection].

4. Working out makes you brave

The rise of courage is another physical activity effect that changes the brain. An individual who isn’t courageous could suffer from anxiety which is dangerous to their physical and mental well-being.

Exercise increases connections among parts of the brain that calm anxiety. Regular physical activity can also improve the state of the nervous system so that it becomes more balanced. Sometimes, specific movements make us perceive ourselves as brave. The mind automatically makes sense out of physical actions. For instance, working out for anxiety through hitting the punching bag for healthy periods will often give you a sense of power and strength. 

working out for anxiety-courage and bravery-man walking past courage street art

5. Working out can help build your mental health

The benefits and importance of support from people can’t be under-emphasized in alleviating anxiety. Working out for anxiety can be a social activity as well. When you work on your physical health through exercise, your mental health is also affected positively, reducing anxiety. You will be more focused on building your physical health and use that time to meditate on more productive things. This leaves less room to be anxious.

6. Working out improves blood circulation

Major anxiety symptoms include a crushing feeling on your chest and loss of breath or breathlessness. A large and growing body of research shows that people experiencing depression, anxiety, stress, and PTSD over a long period of time may experience certain physiologic effects on the body, such as reduced blood flow to the heart, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and heightened levels of cortisol. Over time, these physiologic effects can lead to metabolic disease and coronary heart disease.

It is estimated that 16.3 million Americans aged 20 and older have coronary heart disease (CHD), a prevalence of 7 percent. The prevalence for men is 8.3 percent and for women is 6.1 percent. Psychologist Jemelle explained that exercise helps circulation as it increases blood flow by ensuring blood and oxygen flow throughout the body, allowing every organ to function well. This gets the heart to pump blood around your body more regularly, easing pressure on your blood vessels. 

working out for better blood circulation to improve anxiety-person on bike at dusk

7. Working out for anxiety: best physical exercises to improve your mood 

When you exercise regularly, it can help you to become more confident, make you feel relaxed and lower symptoms of depression by improving your mood. 

Working out for anxiety can also serve as a means of meditation in motion. After some sports activities, you might find out that you have forgotten the stress or anxiety you’re experiencing.

The best types of exercise that can help alleviate anxiety

To alleviate anxiety, one of the most recommended types of exercise is aerobic exercise. Examples are as follows.

  • Running and cycling help increase blood circulation to the brain and aid the release of feel-good hormones, which help our mind relax and make us feel happier
  • Meditation and deep breathing associated with aerobic exercise increase the supply of oxygen to the brain which also helps alleviate anxiety. This rhythmic breathing fills your lungs fully with air and releases tension as you breathe out.
  • Swimming can be one of the most pleasant ways of working out for anxiety. It helps lower depression and anxiety rates when done regularly. Research shows that immersing yourself in water increases blood flow to the brain. This helps to improve memory, mood, and concentration. 
  • Brisk walking: helps to reduce anxiety. According to a report by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a 10-minute walk can be enough to stay calm. It may be as helpful as a 45-minutes or longer walk to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Dancing can alleviate anxiety by bringing about a feeling of connection to the beats of the music. 
working out for anxiety-woman dancing

In conclusion, exercising is good for physical well-being, and it also builds mental strength and helps you resist anxiety. Who knows, maybe you might finally come out of that anxiety sporting a pair of abs and some nice biceps as additions to your newfound mental fortitude.  

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Sarah Williams


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