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  • Writer's pictureHeather

Understanding The Role Of Exercise In The Treatment of Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are common. Not everyone has a chronic or diagnosed condition. Still, many people do experience occasional anxiety, including severe episodes.

Chronic anxiety can result in the evolution of other disorders, such as depression. Additionally, the condition can lead to cardiovascular issues and diabetes without appropriate intervention.

Research suggests that people with anxiety disorders lead more sedentary lives. Therefore, sedentary living can be a contributing factor to the condition.

Exercise is one of the best nonmedical solutions for anxiety prevention and treatment. Psychiatrists often recommend aerobic exercise in combination with prescription therapy to patients. However, how effective is exercise in treating anxiety, and why does it help?

The Benefits of Exercise

Exercise is not only about building strong muscles or increasing stamina or flexibility. The act of focused physical movement can have enormous psychological benefits.

Anxiety is a state of dwelling on a specific emotion or circumstance. The brain locks in on a moment of dread and cannot seem to move past it. Exercise can divert your attention by activating different regions of the brain. Specifically, the frontal areas of the brain become engaged during aerobic activity.

The frontal regions are responsible for executive function. Engaging the front of the brain helps control the amygdala or reactive system of the organ. The amygdala is where anxiety lives.

Aside from activating different regions of the brain, exercise reduces muscle tension. Many people do not realize that physical tension contributes to psychological tension. Movement reduces feelings of tightness, reducing anxiety.

Finally, exercise can alter brain chemistry. As your heart rate increases from physical and healthy stress, the production of beneficial hormones also increases. Your brain gains access to anti-anxiety neurochemicals, including:

  • Serotonin

  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)

  • Endocannabinoids

  • Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)

Regular exercise bolsters anxiety resilience. With routine aerobic exercise, such as walking, you build stores of beneficial neurochemicals.

The Routine

There is no set rule for how much exercise a person needs to avoid anxiety. However, several studies suggest that more exercise is more beneficial than less.

The type of exercise does not seem to matter much for treating anxiety symptoms either. Some research points to the effectiveness of tai chi, and other studies suggest benefits from high-intensity interval training.

It appears what matters most to anxiety treatment and control is routine. People with an anxiety disorder should find an exercise they enjoy, something they will repeat. Something as simple as walking is effective if it gets the heart rate up. Other activities to try might include cycling, swimming, yoga, hiking, etc.

If possible, exercise outdoors, preferably in nature or green space. Outdoor activity in a green space can relieve stress and promote feelings of joy and happiness. Additionally, if comfortable, exercise with a group. Working out alongside friends and family can improve anxious feelings by establishing social support.

Exercise is an excellent way to treat the symptoms of anxiety. For some people with mild anxiety disorders, behavioral changes are enough to alter the condition. Still, you should consult your doctor before making any significant changes to your lifestyle.


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