Exercise and anxiety

Everyone worries about things from time to time and this is completely normal – in fact your life would be a lot more risky if your brain didn’t instinctively worry about everyday tasks like taking something out of the oven or crossing a busy road! It is also logical to worry about things like doing well at school/ university/ work or making sure you eat a healthy diet. However, for some people these normal, everyday worries can become more of a problem and escalate into an anxiety disorder. There are many different types of anxiety disorders ranging from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) to panic disorder to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

There are a range of different treatments for all of these and exercise may suggested, especially in the case of GAD. Exercise can have a positive impact on anxiety for a number of reasons. These can range from the simple feeling of being a way to escape your worries, to helping to rebalance the levels of different neurotransmitters in your brain. There are many other suggestions for how exercise helps mental health which we won’t go into now, but for a more detailed look at these reasons you can read this blog post.

This blog post will look more at how exercise can be used in the treatment of anxiety, and what types of exercise would be best for this.

The anxiety continuum

As is the case for every mental illness, anxiety exists on a continuum. Everyone is somewhere on this continuum, regardless of their worry levels. Having a diagnosis of anxiety just means that you have crossed an invisible line where you meet a certain amount of criteria, get a particular score on a specific test or have had symptoms for a certain length of time, for example. So, as you can imagine, some people may worry a lot but not actually have a diagnosis, either because they don’t quite meet the ‘standards’ required for diagnosis or simply because they haven’t sought a diagnosis at all. This means that people can have either non-clinical (generally less severe and therefore not diagnosed) anxiety, or clinical (diagnosed) anxiety.

These different levels of anxiety mean that research into the effects of exercise on anxiety can get a bit complicated! Despite this, this blog post will attempt to explain what the research into exercise and anxiety currently looks like and how you can use this to reduce any anxiety you might be experiencing…

The effect of exercise on non-clinical anxiety

While the research is a bit unclear, research into non-clinical anxiety suggests that exercise has a positive effect on reducing feelings of worry and anxiety. It is also possible that aerobic exercise (things like running and cycling) has a greater positive impact on anxiety levels than non-aerobic exercise (things like weightlifting). This could be due to an increased level of endorphins (chemicals in your brain which make you ‘feel good’) being released during aerobic exercise compared to non-aerobic exercise.

This exercise doesn’t need to be particularly intense either, in fact moderate exercise for 20-30 minutes may be enough to help reduce feelings of anxiety. Although the evidence on this is slightly unclear, this means that you don’t need to do huge amounts of intense exercise to feel the benefit, just a bit of moderate intensity exercise regularly.

The effect of exercise on clinical anxiety

With so may different anxiety disorders out there, it can make any clear conclusions on the effects of exercise difficult. Another complication is that people with a diagnosed anxiety disorder will often be receiving other treatments such as medication or some sort of talking therapy and so it can be hard to untangle the effects of exercise specifically on their anxiety.

However, research has still looked at the effect of exercise on clinical anxiety. Some of this research is a bit confusing and suggests that across a population exercise levels are in some way linked to anxiety but it is not clear in what way this works. Basically, people who exercise may experience lower levels of anxiety as a result of exercising, or people with anxiety may not exercise as much as people without anxiety, making it hard to draw conclsuions about the effect of exercise on anxiety from some studies.

One way to overcome this problem is to carry out intervention studies (basically studies which measure anxiety levels at the start, carry out some sort of exercise intervention and then re-measure anxiety levels to see if they have changed). Any conclusions of this research need to be taken with a pinch of salt due to methodological problems surrounding how they were carried out. Despite this, the synopsis of this research is that as with non-clinical anxiety, moderate exercise seems to be more helpful that vigorous exercise for reducing anxiety levels. However, unlike non-clinical exercise it is possible that both aerobic and non-aerobic exercise can have a positive influence on clinical anxiety levels.

So, what can we conclude from all of this?

Although more research is needed looking into the impact of exercise on both non-clinical and clinical anxiety (to be honest, more research is needed in pretty much every area you could ever want to research!), my feeling is that exercise is something which would be beneficial to someone struggling with anxiety. After all, even though the research into non-clinical anxiety is marginally clearer, clinical anxiety is just at a different point on the same continuum and is likely to respond in a similar way to exercise as non-clinical anxiety.

The good news is that it would appear that this exercise doesn’t need to be especially vigorous to experience a change in mood. A gentle run a few times a week may be all you need to reduce your worried thoughts.

If you want more help with getting started with exercise, these blogs posts on goal setting and motivation may be helpful to get you on the right track…

Of course, if you are struggling with anxiety, or any other aspect of your mental health, it is important to talk to a health care practictioner for guidance and support.

Happy exercising 🙂

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