(Why I Work Out)
Yes, Exercise Can Help With Anxiety — Sometimes
Can there be too much of a good thing?
For people with an anxiety disorder, exercise is often touted as a miracle cure for managing symptoms. And, in some ways, it is. There’s a growing body of research that suggests working up a sweat and moving your body can help you both cope with (and prevent) anxiety. It can be a powerful way to divert your focus from spiraling thoughts and even help regulate brain chemistry when you’re doing it on a consistent basis.
That said, “just work out” is a wildly oversimplified solution (and honestly, being told that feels trite when you’re living with the impacts of anxiety on the daily). To understand how exercise can positively impact anxiety, it helps to have a sense of what’s actually happening in the brain and body when one is in the thick of it.
“When you feel anxious, your body is alert, signaling your brain to prepare to fight or flight,” says psychology and performance expert Haley Perlus, Ph.D. What this means is that your brain floods your central nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline, she explains, which tell your body to prepare for danger. Whereas the sympathetic nervous system typically helps the brain and body calm down after sensing a threat, when you’re dealing with an anxious brain, “reaching that level of calm may seem close to impossible.”
The Exercise-Anxiety Connection
Enter, exercise. Hitting the gym releases mood-regulating neurotransmitters and chemicals including dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, which can help chill out those feelings of anxiety and stress. It’s not a more-is-more situation, though: Exercise has been shown to help “restore” balance in the brain in terms of neurotransmitters (rather than creating more), explains Aaron Bonner-Jackson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Cleveland Clinic. “[In anxious brains], neurotransmitters are not being transmitted from one cell to the next very efficiently, so it doesn't get around the brain as effectively as it should,” he continues. Exercise is one of the practices that can help regulate this.
Working out can also help distract you from going down a rabbit hole of worries and what-ifs, since it forces you to focus on the movement itself, says Perlus. What’s more, Bonner-Jackson adds, is that “from a more psychological perspective, some people think it contributes to this idea of self-efficacy, meaning that if you can exercise and get better at it over time, that gives you a sense that you’re accomplishing something.” This is especially true when you combine exercise with a social component, like exercising with a friend or group, which can help boost mood and reduce anxiety, he says.
Unsurprisingly, this means that “group fitness classes are in higher demand than ever because people are craving companionship and togetherness after the previous year of isolation,” says Jess Hall, founding trainer at Barry’s Denver.
When Exercise Can Make Anxiety Worse
However, exercise is a perfect example of how you can have too much of a good thing — literally and figuratively. Consuming fitness content (which is basically everywhere these days) can illustrate the downside of workout culture and create body image pressure. “Much of that is fueled by social media apps like Instagram and TikTok, where people are flaunting ‘perfect’ and often filtered bodies,” says Perlus. (Not to mention perfectly posed and angled bodies.) “The purpose of working out, which is to be healthy, can get lost and replaced with an end goal of body idealism.”
Not only is this obsession counterintuitive to improving anxiety — it can be physically dangerous, too. “Over-exercising to meet your goals — [for example], exercising six to seven days per week and/or more than 90 minutes per session — can lead to physical and mental burnout,” shares health and wellness expert Deanna Robinson.
Perlus also notes that although we all know and love the athleisure craze, it also creates pressure to look cute while working out — long gone are the days of throwing on whatever workout clothes you grab first out of the drawer and breaking a sweat.
Plus, “most social media posts tend to show a reflection of getting in shape quickly, and people post pictures of meals and workouts that are not necessarily the truth,” reminds trainer and wellness expert Lisa Tanker, CPT. Keep in mind that others’ online fitness journeys often are a carefully curated highlight reel. This goes for not only fitness posts, but posts that promote a sense of idealism around body positivity itself. While it’s great that some people tout the idea of self-love on Instagram and TikTok, not feeling that way 24/7 can become another reason to feel like you’re not stacking up.
Beyond how you look, being a committed gym-goer has the potential to turn into an obsession, feeding into the anxiety spiral. “Perfection becomes more important than the journey, and nothing becomes good enough — what once was a stress relief becomes a stressor … and it’s really tough not to compare oneself with another who may perform a certain way,” says Hall. The most important thing is to stay true to your own goals and understand that being “in shape” is anything but a one-size-fits-all definition — everyone is different, she says.
One of the first steps here is to identify social media content that can put you into that anxiety and perfection spiral. “Try to follow accounts that align more with the realistic journey you face toward achieving your body goals, and limit how much time you spend looking at images online,” suggests Tanker.
Physically, some types of exercise (like hardcore cardio) can also spur feelings of anxiety in people who already struggle with it. For example, sprinting it out on a treadmill can feel a lot like experiencing the shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and sweating of a panic attack, says Perlus, and that scary feeling doesn’t always deliver the endorphin-boosting “high” of exercise we’re looking for.
This doesn’t have to be a forever challenge, though. “One thing that I have seen in some of my research is that in some cases, people can overcome the fear of the physical response,” says Bonner-Jackson. “You associate increased heart rate with anxiety, but you can relearn that this response can actually be a positive thing.”
To help get there, Perlus suggests trying a grounding exercise when you’re feeling anxious during a workout: Notice five things you can see (like a plant in the corner or your water bottle), four that you can handle (like your hands or your phone), three you can smell (like gym cleaning solution or someone’s perfume), two you can hear (like birds chirping or cars passing outside the studio), and one you can taste (like your gum or coffee). This exercise, also known as the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique, is touted in the behavioral health space for its ability to keep the mind focused on the present and stay in the moment (similar to meditation and breathing exercises). “Ultimately you can retrain your brain and body to react to workouts more calmly,” Perlus says, echoing Bonner-Jackson.
How To Make Exercise Work For Your Mental Health
While what works for everyone is different, there are some general best practices that you can use as a starting point to explore how you can best manage anxiety with exercise.
For example, “exercise that consists of repetitive motions tends to have a meditative effect on the brain, as they create lasting changes in our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters known as serotonin and norepinephrine, both during and after exercise,” says Perlus. Restorative practices like yoga can also reduce anxiety, as can exercising outdoors.
“Workouts that you find terribly daunting can have an opposite effect on mental health,” adds Robinson. While it’s great to keep an open mind and try new things (you may just find you love jogging, dancing, or hiking), pay attention to what workouts feel rewarding, not draining.
In terms of timing, the biggest guideline that Bonner-Jackson provides is to avoid working out within two hours of your bedtime, as that can disrupt your sleep. Perlus suggests trying morning workouts to start your day off on the right foot. “Exercise burns off adrenaline, a stress-fueled hormone that triggers our fight-or-flight response. Having less adrenaline will not only make you feel calmer but also promotes the production of endorphins, which … produce a sense of well-being. When you work out in the morning, these mood-regulating hormones can be kept in check as we start our day.”
It can also be helpful to time workouts around other parts of your week that put you on-edge. “If you know the things that typically make you anxious, you can plan workouts that fit into those days ahead of time,” suggests Tanker. “When you start feeling anxious, carve out time in your day to replace any other habit that doesn't serve you with working out.”
Ultimately, the best time and type of workout is the one you can stick with. “Little and often will help you make positive changes to your handle on anxiety through an exercise routine,” adds Hall. If you’re new to exercise altogether, start slow and steady to avoid getting overwhelmed (after all, trying new things can be scary, so be kind to yourself).
Adds Bonner-Jackson, “Changes in the brain take [a while]. If you exercise once and not again, you'll probably see an immediate benefit, and then it'll go away because you have to maintain those activities to keep those neurotransmitters [balanced]. Medicines for anxiety or depression may take weeks to really kick in and show a benefit, and the same can be said for the longer term benefits of exercise.”
On that note, it’s very important to remember that anxiety is a serious condition, and sometimes, self-care practices like exercise and sleep are not enough — and that’s on the brain, not on you. So, if you’re exercising and not seeing changes in your anxiety levels, Bonner-Jackson encourages talking to your medical provider or a mental health practitioner about your options. “There is evidence that when medicine and exercise are combined, they can be very effective together,” he says.
Think of exercise as a tool for combatting anxiety, not the end-all miracle cure. But, it’s a pretty powerful tool at that.