How Does Exercise Help Anxiety and Depression?

Many people are familiar with some of the benefits of exercise. It can help you lose weight if you need to or maintain your weight if you already have a healthy BMI. Aerobic exercise improves the health of your heart and lungs. It can help you stave off heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even some types of cancer. There’s also evidence that exercise can boost your immune system, potentially making you less susceptible to the common cold or influenza. Did you know, however, that exercise can also help with the symptoms of depression and anxiety? Read on to find out how this works, as well as tips for getting over mental hurdles, getting enough exercise, and making it fit into your or your teenager’s lifestyle.

Exercise and Mental Health Benefits

There are many ways that exercise can help with anxiety and depression. Here are some of the mental health benefits that exercise has to offer.

  • Makes you feel better – If you have low energy due to depression or hyperventilation due to anxiety, exercising can get these issues under control.
  • Better sleep – Exercising regularly can help you get better sleep, which, in turn, often reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Take your mind of your trouble – Exercising can also help you get your mind off of your troubles, which can serve as a temporary relief to the stress that is contributing to your depression or anxiety.
  • Increases brain health – Exercise can reduce inflammation in the brain and create activity patterns that make you feel better and calmer. Being active helps release endorphins, which can contribute to the “runner’s high.”
  • Improves mindfulness – Being more mindful can be powerful against anxiety. If your thoughts tend to run wild, actually running (or walking, jogging, swimming, or playing tennis) can reign them in as you focus on the physical intensity of whatever it is you’re doing.

Overcoming Mental Hurdles

People who have anxiety and/or depression can easily talk themselves out of not wanting to exercise. For example, if you have anxiety, including health anxiety, you might worry that you’ll hurt yourself, that you’ll have a heart attack, or that you’ll get lost or assaulted while out exercising. If you have depression, it can take everything in you just to get up, put on your sneakers, and get a workout in. You also might worry that it won’t make a difference anyway, that you are too out of shape to sustain a long workout, or that you will feel even more exhausted afterward.

The good news is that even a tiny bit of exercise is better than none. If you’re anxious about your health (or even if you aren’t!), it’s a good idea to see your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough to work out. This should reassure you that you’re not likely to suffer a heart attack or collapse while exercising. Even if you are in poor health, however, going for a short walk or doing some stretches while you sit can be helpful and safe for you. If you feel overwhelmed at the thought of going for a workout, consider just walking up and down your street. Or you can put on a 15-minute workout video (you can search for them on YouTube) or some music and just move your body for that short period of time.

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

As previously stated, any exercise is better than no exercise. If you’re wondering what you should work up to, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that most adults and teens get 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, as well as two sessions of muscle-building activity, each week. To break it down, that means that you should try to exercise for 30 minutes, five days per week, and you should add some muscle-strengthening exercises to two of your workouts.

If you prefer to exercise at a more intense level, you can work out for about half the time and still see the same benefits. For example, a 15-minute run can take the place of a 30-minute brisk walk. You also don’t have to do all 30 minutes per day in one stretch. It’s best to get your heart pumping for at least 10 minutes at a time, so this means that three 10-minute stretches of activity are just as effective as one 30-minute session. Also, you should see how you feel; some people with anxiety or depression feel better if they exercise longer, while others feel good when they stick to three, 10-minute sessions each day.

Making Time for Exercise

If you have trouble fitting in a workout in between all you have to do, you are not alone! One way to make time for exercise is to combine it with the things you are already doing. For example, you’ve probably heard the suggestion to park farther away from your office building or the grocery store so you can get more walking into your day. You can also try to take the stairs instead of the elevator, and see if you can shave a few minutes from your lunch break to go for a quick walk around the parking lot of your workplace.

If you are trying to get your teen to exercise more, encourage him or her to join a sports team in place of a club that has a more sedentary focus. You can also try giving your teen more active chores (such as vacuuming, mopping, or gardening) instead of chores like washing dishes or cooking dinner.

Making Exercise Fun

It can be difficult to find the joy in exercise, particularly if your thoughts are consumed by worries or you are already depressed. Making exercise more fun can help. Here are just a few ideas of how to make exercising more fun.

  • Try making it a social activity by joining a zumba or yoga class, meeting a friend for a walk, or joining a gym.
  • If you are an animal lover, volunteer at the local animal shelter to be a dog-walker.
  • Take up a physical hobby like going for bike rides.
  • Show up at a local ball court for an impromptu pick-up basketball or softball game.


Getting enough exercise can be enough to treat mild anxiety or depression without relying on pharmaceutical drugs, which is excellent if you are hoping to avoid the side effects that can go along with these medications. Even if you have severe depression or anxiety, getting some exercise can help. Keep in mind that you should not stop taking or reduce your dosage of any prescribed medications without advice from your doctor, because stopping suddenly can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. Talk to your physician and your mental health care provider about ways that you can benefit from physical exercise.