The Best Workout For Anxiety Isn’t What You’d Think

Виталий Сова/Fotolia

Meredith and Cristina from Grey's Anatomy may have been on to something with those stress-busting 30-second dance parties. If you've ever gotten the advice to work out to help your mental health, you know that exercise isn't exactly a cure-all for anxiety. Managing your mental health requires a multi-pronged approach that can definitely include exercise, along with therapy, medication, or other doctor-supervised treatment strategies. But if exercise is your jam, the best workout for anxiety might surprise you.

According to a study published in Games for Health Journal, Zumba — the Latin American-inspired dance-fitness program — can actually transform your anxiety, thanks to the mental focus it takes to perform the Zumba dance moves and the fact that dancing is fun. MindBodyGreen ranked Zumba number one on their list of workouts for anxiety, with neurologist Ilene Ruhoy telling the publication, "It makes the body and mind feel good and contributes to a sense of belonging to a larger group of people with similar interests."

If you've never taken this Latin dance class, it's worth giving it a try because it's impossible not to have fun while grooving to a steady Latin beat. While I used to take Zumba every day, I have't done it in years. However, the news that it could be the best exercise for anxiety might just get me back on the dance floor; my anxiety can be debilitating, and I know that physical activity helps me calm down.

If your anxiety levels are too high to even consider taking a public Zumba class, you can build up your confidence at home by opting for a YouTube or video-game class. No matter where you do Zumba, the combination of concentration and physical movement will definitely take the focus off of your anxiety. "Since the exergame Zumba Fitness was considered enjoyable, it could also be used to stimulate the practice of physical activity at home and encourage daily exercise, especially among people who are reluctant to engage in more traditional forms of exercise, such as going to the gym or walking/jogging outdoors," the study explained.

Zumba also has other super powers. Time magazine reported that another study published in the European Journal of Sport Science found that after just eight weeks of Zumba, women in the study reported a 9 percent increase in their overall quality of life and a 16 percent increase in their self-esteem.

One reason for these findings might be because Zumba forces you to let go of your need to control the situation, something people with anxiety may have a hard time doing. It also builds core strength on top of cardio, which can make you feel stronger and more confident.

"You have to let go and have fun during Zumba," study coauthor Jamie Cooper, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, is quoted as saying in Time. Aside from being a great workout, Zumba is fun because it's impossible not to laugh when you find yourself going left when you should be going right, or stepping forward when everyone else is stepping backward. Bring a friend so you can experience the hilarity and mental-health benefits together.

Of course, again, exercise — of any kind — isn't a substitute for a comprehensive mental health care plan. Though plenty of studies show that just one hour of exercise per week can help alleviate symptoms of depression, this can be unhelpful advice to someone whose depression makes it impossible for them to get out of bed. And generally speaking, self-care practices like nourishing yourself, hydrating, getting enough sleep, or yes, exercising, are crucial to maintaining your mental health, but aren't the same thing as therapy or medication when it comes to treating it.

That being said, there's no harm in giving a new exercise routine a spin if you're looking for a way to complement your mental health care plan. Want to give Zumba a try? You can find Zumba videos on YouTube, or head to Yelp to find a class near you.