Research-Backed Exercises That May Help Reduce Anxiety

Your body plays a bigger role in your mental health than you might think. These exercises may provide some relief from anxious feelings.

Young woman practicing yoga in backyard
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If you have anxiety, there may be times when the last thing you feel like doing is moving your body. But exercise can play a key role in managing your symptoms, thanks to the powerful link between your physical and mental health.

"We know that the old divisions of body and mind are false," said Ben Michaelis, PhD, an evolutionary clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy. "When you take care of yourself, you are helping the whole system."

How Exercise Helps Ease Anxiety

Being active likely has both physical and mental effects that improve mood, per a 2021 review in Frontiers in Psychiatry.¹ There's evidence that exercise induces changes in a part of the brain that regulates the body's stress response. While exercise initially spikes levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, the levels of those hormones drop after physical activity, which may lead to feelings of decreased stress.²

For people with a diagnosed anxiety disorder exercise may complement first-line treatments, like anti-anxiety medicines and cognitive behavioral therapy.³

While further research is needed, exercise might even be a way to prevent or treat anxiety disorders, per researchers in the 2020 book Physical Exercise for Human Health.⁴

The Best Exercises for Anxiety

  • Cardio
  • Interval training
  • Nature walks
  • Yoga

Adults may find that even small amounts of physical activity can immediate have an impact on anxiety symptoms.⁵ And while almost any kind of activity can be good for overall health, research suggests that these exercises, in particular, may alleviate anxiety symptoms.

Cardio

You don't have to be an elite athlete to glean mental health benefits from engaging in physical activity. Research suggests that any type of exercise that improves how well your heart and lungs deliver oxygen to your muscles during a workout can reduce anxiety. ⁶ And there are plenty of exercise options, from running, swimming, and biking to brisk walking.

One small study, reported in 2015 in the journal Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, examined the effects of a single bout of aerobic exercise on people with varying levels of anxiety. Researchers randomly assigned people to either an aerobics group who did 30 minutes of exercise or a control group who performed stretching exercises and measured their levels of anxiety before and immediately after exercise as well as three and seven days later. As predicted, people in the aerobic exercise group showed short-term reductions in anxiety sensitivity, while the control group did not.⁷

If running's your thing, that can be helpful too. "Running causes lasting changes in our 'feel good' neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, both during and after exercise," Michaelis said. Running may make it easier for you to fall asleep at night, he added. Sleep can benefit your overall mental health by boosting your mood, lowering stress, and helping you think more clearly.⁸

Michaelis noted that you should always consult your health care provider about your treatment options (and before you start an exercise program of any kind). Most adults should get 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity exercise a week, per government guidelines. More vigorous exercisers ought to log 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of activity per week.⁶

Interval Training

Some people with anxiety might want to try high-intensity interval training (HIIT). This type of exercise involves repeated bouts of high exertion followed by periods of recovery.⁹ In small studies, HIIT appears to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety.

Researchers in Spain recruited 67 otherwise healthy adults who were confined to their homes during a COVID-19 lockdown period to participate in a trial of home-based exercise. Volunteers were randomly assigned to one of two exercise groups: HIIT or moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. Each group exercised for the same period of time: 40 minutes six days a week. After six weeks, each type of training resulted in reductions in anxiety and stress, according to study results published in 2021 in Frontiers in Psychology.¹⁰

Separately, researchers in Germany studied HIIT as a treatment for anxiety disorders. Their small trial compared high-intensity and lower-intensity training. A total of 33 people with generalized anxiety disorder were randomly assigned to one type of training or the other. Researchers measured participants' anxiety levels before and after the 12-week training period and again 30 days later. While both types of exercise appeared to reduce symptoms of anxiety, HIIT was about twice as effective, per their 2020 report in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.¹¹

Nature Walks

How about a dose of Mother Nature to ease anxious feelings? An expanding body of research suggests there may be therapeutic benefits to moving your body in natural settings, at least in the short term. "Nature has a calming effect on the mind," said Michaelis.

A 2015 study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, for example, discovered that when young adults went on a 50-minute nature walk, they felt less anxious and had improved memory function.¹²

Some studies suggest that walking around in a lush, green environment, or "forest bathing," may help ease anxiety symptoms, per a 2021 review and analysis in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.¹³

Likewise, a review of 12 studies published from 2013 to 2020 finds nature walks can reduce "state anxiety." (That's the anxiety you feel in response to a perceived threat.¹⁴) However, the studies did not show the same benefit for people with generalized anxiety, according to the 2021 review in Sustainability.¹⁵

Yoga

Yoga is considered generally safe for most people and may be helpful for managing the anxious feelings that arise in difficult life situations, notes the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).¹⁶

While yoga may not replace first-line treatment for people with anxiety disorders, there's evidence that it may be an effective add-on.

A 2021 study in JAMA Psychiatry involved 226 adults with generalized anxiety disorder. People were randomly assigned to 12 weeks of Kundalini yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or stress management education (the control group). While CBT provided longer lasting benefits, both yoga and CBT improved anxiety symptoms, the authors noted.¹⁷

"The great thing about yoga is that besides the stretching and core strengthening, there is a tremendous focus on breathing, which helps to slow down and calm the mind," said Michaelis.

Whether you're looking for non-pharmaceutical ways to manage anxiety or want to add some movement to your current anxiety treatment routine, trying some exercise, be it vigorous or gentle, may offer some relief. Sore muscles aside, it won't hurt.

Sources

  1. Svensson M, Brundin L, Erhardt S, Hållmarker U, James S, Deierborg T. Physical Activity Is Associated With Lower Long-Term Incidence of Anxiety in a Population-Based, Large-Scale Study. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2021;12:714014. Published 2021 Sep 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2021.714014
  2. American Psychological Association. Working out boosts brain health.
  3. UpToDate, Wolters Kluwer. Complementary and alternative treatments for anxiety symptoms and disorders: Physical, cognitive, and spiritual interventions.
  4. Kandola, A. Stubbs, B (2020). Exercise and Anxiety. In: Xiao, J (eds) Physical Exercise for Human Health. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, vol 1228. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-1792-1_23
  5. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Physical Activity Is Good for the Mind and the Body.
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2nd Edition. 2018.
  7. LeBouthillier DM, Asmundson GJ. A Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise Reduces Anxiety Sensitivity But Not Intolerance of Uncertainty or Distress Tolerance: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. 2015;44(4):252-263. doi:10.1080/16506073.2015.1028094
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Get Enough Sleep.
  9. American College of Sports Medicine. High-IntensityInterval Training.
  10. Borrega-Mouquinho Y, Sánchez-Gómez J, Fuentes-García JP, Collado-Mateo D, Villafaina S. Effects of High-Intensity Interval Training and Moderate-Intensity Training on Stress, Depression, Anxiety, and Resilience in Healthy Adults During Coronavirus Disease 2019 Confinement: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Frontiers in Psychology. 2021;12:643069. Published 2021 Feb 24. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.643069
  11. Plag J, Schmidt-Hellinger P, Klippstein T, et al. Working out the worries: A randomized controlled trial of high intensity interval training in generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 2020;76:102311. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102311
  12. Bratman GN, Daily GC, Levy BJ, Gross JJ. The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning. 2015;138:41-50. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005
  13. Stier-Jarmer M, Throner V, Kirschneck M, Immich G, Frisch D, Schuh A. The Psychological and Physical Effects of Forests on Human Health: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021;18(4):1770. Published 2021 Feb 11. doi:10.3390/ijerph18041770
  14. American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology.
  15. Kotera Y, Lyons M, Vione KC, Norton B. Effect of Nature Walks on Depression and Anxiety: A Systematic Review. Sustainability. 2021; 13(7):4015. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13074015
  16. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Yoga:What You Need to Know.
  17. Simon NM, Hofmann SG, Rosenfield D, et al. Efficacy of Yoga vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy vs Stress Education for the Treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2021;78(1):13-20. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.2496
Updated by
Karen Pallarito
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Karen is a senior editor at Health, where she produces health condition “explainers” backed by current science. 
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