3 Workouts That Can Help Anxiety & The Science Behind Why
If you have an anxiety disorder or experience high levels of anxiety in general, you'll likely know that exercise has been touted as a great way to reduce anxiety symptoms. However, it can be tough to figure out what precise exercise regime might help the most — which means it can be helpful to know how workouts are meant to reduce anxiety. The good news is that there isn't one universal anxiety-busting workout that fits everybody; you have a lot of choices that might be able to help. Three particular kinds of exercise stand out as anxiety-soothing, but they're broad categories that can contain many different activities.
Around 40 million adults in the U.S. live with an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, and relatively few of them — around a third — are seeking treatment for it. Exercise, whether at home, in a gym or out on a sports field, can be a good way to help manage anxiety symptoms, though it definitely can't "cure" anxiety. And if you're feeling overwhelmed, you can always reach out for professional help.
There's scientific basis behind the idea that certain kinds of exercise are helpful for anxiety, so if you want to change it up or start exercising for the first time, here are some things to try.
1. Aerobic, Cardio-Heavy Exercises
Cardio, or exercises that push your heart rate up, are the best-known anxiety-busters in the game. This includes everything from high-intensity running to weightlifting, swimming, team sports and HIIT: anything that makes you break a sweat, breath hard, and feel your heart race. Aerobic exercise of this kind, explains Harvard Health, "reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the 'runner's high' and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts — or, at least, the hot shower after your exercise is over."
Aerobic exercise in particular has been highlighted as a great sustained way of dealing with anxiety. One study of different exercise types found that, among people with anxiety, symptoms dipped the most 90 minutes after a 20-minute high-intensity workout at "80% of maximal oxygen intake" — so breathing very hard indeed. Even if working your hardest is still comparatively slow or difficult, aerobic effort seems to be a good plan overall for getting the best possible mix of lowered stress hormones and high endorphins.
2. Intense Workouts Over 30 Minutes Long
An interesting study in 2010 found that when it comes to exercise, going over the 30-minute mark may actually be helpful. A series of sessions over 30 minutes were better at reducing anxiety than ones that came in at under the half-hour mark, though, interestingly, people were less anxious if those longer sessions only occurred for about three months, rather than lasting indefinitely.
The reason behind this is intriguing: the researchers thought that sustained exercise that raised the heart rate and caused rapid breathing for a long time helped people feel comfortable with those feelings. That in turn helped anxiety, because a racing heart and fast breathing are both characteristic anxiety symptoms — and exercise teaches anxious people not to fear them.
Thirty minutes also seems to be the key for maintaining lower anxiety levels. A study in 2012 found that cycling for half an hour reduced anxiety symptoms for a significant period of time afterwards, while Everyday Health recommends that anxious people break up exercise throughout the day into three 10 to 15-minute blocks to make it more manageable and sustain the effects. However, these effects aren't set in stone; if you feel the greatest and most sustained calm after a 20-minute set of intense cardio rather than a 30-minute jog or an hour of basketball, it's best to stick to what works for you.
Yoga is an ancient practice, and it also has anxiety-lowering properties. "By reducing perceived stress and anxiety, yoga appears to modulate stress response systems. This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal — for example, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration," notes Harvard Health. The benefits of yoga for anxiety center both on its physical strengths and its calming focus; intense yoga can raise the heart rate and lower stress hormones, but it can also soothe the anxious, racing brain through its focus on the breath and fluid, gentle movements.
Low-level constant worrying and hypervigilance is a common symptom of anxiety disorders, and yoga appears to help those too. A study by Georgia State University in 2016 on three people with anxiety, reported in Psychology Today, found that daily yoga practice decreased overall worry or helped it 'level out'. Part of this may be the helpfulness of routine, but it also suggests that yoga as a practice has psychological benefits.
Want to bust your anxiety using your workouts? Don't feel restricted to one particular activity; try out what appeals to you, from Zumba to private sessions to runs on the beach, and track what improves your mood. And don't be afraid to make your heart race.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.