Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at some point in their life, it’s normal. It’s one of the body’s natural responses to stress and can be characterised by a feeling of unease, worry, or fear.

Anxiety is often sparked by a sudden or big change in our lives, or when we’re faced with stressful situations (sound a little familiar at the moment?).

For some individuals, anxiety can be a regular, severe and unwanted part of their everyday lives and it can impede on their ability to function.

Whether a person experiences anxiety acutely or chronically, one of the most researched and effective management tools is exercise.

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What does the research say about exercise and anxiety reduction?

Hundreds of scientific studies and reviews (and reviews of reviews!) have consistently shown exercise to be beneficial to our mental health and have drawn strong associations with positive changes in mood.

Just one example is a robust study that was published in the late 1980s. It took a sample of 55,000(!) subjects, controlled for confounding variables like sex, age, socioeconomic status, and illness; and found self-reported physical activity correlated with fewer symptoms of anxiety.

Image Credit: Phil Hill ©

Research since then has exhibited further positive effects of exercise and anxiety. Positive effects have been found in males, females, fit and unfit subjects, the healthy, the ill, the young and the old.

Even people with low levels of anxiety have seen reductions (though there are strong indications that greater effects do occur in those with more severe anxiety and life stress).

In one study, 'acute exercise' (i.e. just a single bout) was found to have a similar effects upon reducing anxiety levels as that of quiet rest or distraction.

So, rest and exercise could arguably be considered equally effective management techniques, although the study found that exercise reduced anxiety for up to 24 hours, whereas the rest group’s anxiety levels returned to baseline after just 30 minutes.

Sports psychologists have studied the chronic effects of exercise and reported changes in confidence, resilience and a person’s feeling of empowerment over time. And it appears that the enduring effects of long-term participation are more clinically important than the acute effects of exercise on anxiety.

Which type of exercise is best for reducing anxiety?

Originally, the body of evidence around mental health and exercise focused on aerobic exercise alone. As a result, its positive effects became extremely well-documented.

It was first believed that aerobic exercise needed to be of a certain intensity and a sufficient duration to produce beneficial psychological effects.

The earliest research suggested 70% maximum heart rate (HRmax) was necessary, but subsequent, more extensive research has led to that threshold being decreased over time. It now seems that even light aerobic exercise (~30% HRmax) produces positive changes.

Other studies have followed in this area and confirmed that other non-aerobic activities, such as weightlifting, resistance training, and yoga, also provide a similar benefit (good news for anyone who isn’t into cardio!).

As for the duration of exercise, it seems that all lengths of exercise significantly reduce anxiety, but larger effects are seen in exercise that lasts beyond 30 minutes.

Image Credit: Phil Hill ©

How does exercise reduce anxiety?

There's enough accumulated evidence in the research for researchers to be able to confidently state that exercise is beneficial when it comes to reducing anxiety, but how does it do this? 

There are a number of proposed mechanisms but sports psychologists seem to have settled on the idea that it’s most likely a mixture of biology and psychology.

Endorphins would appear to play a major role.

Endorphins are a ‘feel-good hormone’ which are increased by exercise. Elevated levels of endorphins enhance your feeling of well-being. They act in the brain to interact with the opiate receptors to reduce our perception of pain (i.e. natural pain relievers) and boost pleasure.

The word endorphin actually comes from putting together the words ‘endogenous’ (i.e. from within the body) and ‘morphine’ (an opiate pain reliever).

More research studying the link between anxiety and endorphin levels in humans is required, but studies on mice have shown a direct relationship between endorphins and reduced anxious behaviour.

It's possible that reductions in anxiety are tied to the actual physiological gains that result from regular exercise, but a stronger train of thought is that the reduced anxiety is associated with reductions in muscle tension which are in turn closely related to reduced stress. This is particularly noteworthy because it's perceived stress which can trigger anxiety.

There’s also strong support for the theory that pushing hard during exercise helps you become familiar with the feelings of enduring physical and emotional discomfort.

Simply put, it’s an outlet for getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Image Credit: Phil Hill ©

Through exercise and specifically training, you prove to yourself time and time again that you're capable of much more than you previously thought.

Exercise can help build self-esteem, confidence and eventually optimism, which all indirectly influence our feelings of anxiety.

There's another important factor at play too as socialisation and being around others during exercise can be a hugely positive tool for some athletes. 

Conclusion

Movement plays an important role in feelings of well-being in humans and it’s the key link between the mind and the body.

Exercise may not be an appropriate substitute for treatment and/or medication in severe cases of anxiety and depression, but it may help to ease the burden for some.

It’s an accessible, effective long-term management tool and one which many of us can benefit from when our anxiety levels are heightened.

Further reading