Can Exercise Really Help With Anxiety?

Photographed by Molly Cranna.
Someone recently asked me how I wake up early enough to work out in the morning, and the honest answer is that my anxiety usually wakes me up before the sun, and the only way to calm down is to jump on the treadmill and attempt to "run it off." It's often easier for me to get through my day when I've taken time to work off some of my extra energy first thing in the morning — but that's just me.
As it turns out, I'm not the only person who feels this way. Experts have known for a while that exercise is good for your mental health. Of course, working out is not a replacement for mental health assistance or psychiatric medication (and it's dismissive to assume that people with anxiety and depression should just work out to feel better), but exercise can enhance people's moods, improve sleep, reduce depression, and boost their self esteem. For people with generalised anxiety disorders in particular, exercise can be helpful in a few specific ways.
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"Exercise seems to be a buffer for stressors," says Jasper Smits, PhD, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas Austin, and author of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety. From a physiological standpoint, exercise causes some of the same sensations as anxiety, like heavy breathing, sweating, and increased heart rate, he says. For some people, regular exercise can make you more comfortable with these sensations, which ultimately changes the way that your body responds to psychological stressors. "They're in better shape, so to speak, to work with the stressors that occur that day," he says.
In addition to conditioning your body to handle anxious feelings, exercise can also just be a way to distract yourself, Dr. Smits says. When you're stressed, you're often laser-focused on the thing stressing you out — like work deadlines, your roommates passive aggressive texts, or your bills. "It's hard once you start moving to keep that focus on the stressor, because now you have to pay attention to what you’re doing." So, hitting a punching bag at the end of the day, or clearing your head with a morning run might be a way to temporarily separate yourself from whatever is stressing you out. Plus, the simple action of boxing or running can be therapeutic in and of itself.
But you don't have to be into boxing or running to be able to reap the mental benefits of exercise. All different types of exercise can be beneficial for anxiety, but most studies to date have looked at the benefits of aerobic exercise (aka cardio) only, Dr. Smits says. That doesn't mean that lifting weights or doing some low-intensity resistance workout (like barre or Pilates) can't help with anxiety, it's just that there hasn't been research about the effects of those workouts. Aerobic exercise also tends to elicit the type of physical response that can lower your anxiety sensitivity, so it's usually what therapists will recommend, he says.
After cardio, yoga seems to be the next best option, because it's a mindfulness-based practice. In fact, some studies suggest that hot yoga can be beneficial for anxiety because the heat exposes people to stress, which ultimately changes the way that people relate to that feeling, Dr. Smits says. But some people hate cardio and yoga. So, it's important to find a type of workout that you actually like, so that you're motivated to keep doing it, he says. Who knows? You might enjoy a workout so much that you want to wake up early to do it.
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