Exercise For Anxiety And Depression Could Be The Treatment You’ve Been Looking For

Here’s what science says about the mental health benefits of exercise for depression and anxiety.

August 11, 2018
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For five years, Tori Madison, who lives in Atlanta, has battled depression. Feeling paralyzed by grief after her brother’s death, she initially isolated herself from others and quickly found that she could no longer do the things she once enjoyed like yoga, training for triathlons, and hiking.

“I went to doctors and psychiatrists who prescribed me anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications, but these never really healed the cause of my depression. Rather, they provided a temporary fix for my agony and pain,” she explains. It wasn’t until she added daily cardiovascular exercise to her overall treatment plan that her anxieties, fears, and sadness started to subside. Today, she’s continuing to transform her life by getting her master’s degree in health and wellness coaching and hopes to help other people address and manage their own experiences with depression.

If you struggle with depression and/or anxiety, you know all too well how difficult it can be to care for yourself—both physically and emotionally. While treatment options such as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication have made life so much better for millions of people, researchers are now finding that people who also use exercise for depression and anxiety are experiencing some amazing results.

What the Experts Says About Exercise for Depression and Anxiety: The Science Behind This Treatment Method

It’s no secret that physical activity is good for your body. But what about the mental health benefits of exercise?

Judy Ho, PhD, a double board-certified and licensed clinical and forensic psychologist, says that moderate intensity exercise appears to improve depression and anxiety symptoms and increase self-concept. And there’s research to back up Ho’s claims.

According to one study, exercise as an add-on to conventional antidepressant therapies improved the efficacy of other treatment options such as antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy.

When it comes to the chemical process that takes place in the brain, Prakash Masand, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence, says that in cases of anxiety and depression specifically, exercise helps release essential neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. “This is important because these neurotransmitters are responsible for mood, energy, sleep, concentration, our ability to handle stress, cravings, and more,” he adds.

He explains that people with anxiety and depression have a chemical imbalance of these vital neurotransmitters, and exercise is a natural way of boosting their production.

And licensed psychologist Farrah Hauke, PsyD., points out that increasing the availability of serotonin is the purpose of most commonly prescribed antidepressant medications. In addition to changes in brain chemistry, Hauke also says that exercise results in positive cognitive and behavioral side effects, such as being a welcome distraction from anxious or depressive thoughts and reducing feelings of isolation.

How to Use Exercise for Depression and Anxiety

When it comes to the role exercise plays in anxiety and depression treatment plans, Ho says that in general, more moderate exercise produces greater enjoyment than very intense activity, particularly for individuals who are already struggling with depression and/or anxiety, who might find a very vigorous or frequent exercise program too daunting in their current emotional state.

“Exercise does not need to be lengthy or intense, and fitness gains, like actually losing body fat or weight, are not necessary for patients to experience positive results like symptom reduction,” says Ho.

Hauke says any exercise that is an “upper,” such as aerobic activity that elevates heart rate and breathing (e.g., running, cycling, and dancing) is good for managing the symptoms of depression. “For a novice exerciser, this also could be any intentional and/or repetitive body movement such as pushing the kids in the stroller, house cleaning, or walking the dog,” she says.

Shallow breathing sends a message to your brain to be alert, whereas when you do deep belly breathing, it changes that message towards a less anxious state.”

—Robert Oppenheimer, LCSW

When it comes to anxiety-reducing exercises, Hauke recommends exercise or body movement that activates the relaxation response through mind-body connection (e.g., yoga, Pilates, and barre). “The reason for this is that exercises which focus on calm, slow, and intentional movement and breathing help deactivate the fight-or-flight response which is commonly experienced during anxious reactions,” she explains. In fact, studies show that yoga appears to be a promising intervention for depression. Another recent study supports the idea that yoga plays a role in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression

Masand suggests running and fast-pace walking for anxiety and depression, and some studies have shown that doing these activities out in nature (rather than in an urban area or on the treadmill) is even better for those who want to use exercise to treat depression.  

Certified personal trainer Derek Mikulski says cardiovascular exercise, resistance training, and mind-body modalities like Pilates, yoga, meditation, and Tai Chi seem to be the best forms of physical activity if you have anxiety or depression.

“My personal recommendation is for people with anxiety and depression to integrate all of the above types of exercise into their mental health fitness program: lots of cardiovascular activity (35 minutes per day, every day), some resistance training (three times per week), and a mind-body practice two to three days per week,” he says.

“When these three conditions are met, I’m able to see evident changes in client behavior with the largest and most obvious changes being improved mood, increased energy and performance during workouts, and increased willingness to be challenged,” he says.

But it’s not just the obvious benefits that Mikulski notices. There are also more subtle changes he observes that may go undetected by people who aren’t tuned into others’ mind-body experiences. “I have seen clients smile more, laugh more, and walk taller, and these changes may be most important of all,” he adds.

What You Need to Know Before You Start Exercising

Exercising when you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or out of shape can be stressful in itself. That’s why it’s so important to find something you like and feel comfortable doing regularly. The best part about physical activity and its ability to ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression is that you don’t have to be a gym rat to reap the benefits. In fact, Masand says even a 10 to 20-minute brisk walk can do wonders for your mental health.

Robert Oppenheimer, clinical therapist at CAST Centers, says that at first, it might feel like exercise actually makes anxiety symptoms worse, not better. “When you start to increase physical activity, the heart rate goes up, which feels quite similar to anxiety symptoms,” he explains.

In cases of anxiety and depression specifically, exercise helps release essential neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

The good news: As you continue exercising for a longer period of time, Oppenheimer says you’ll experience fewer and fewer symptoms of anxiety. He also recommends paying attention to how you’re breathing when active. “Shallow breathing sends a message to your brain to be alert, whereas when you do deep belly breathing, it changes that message towards a less anxious state,” he adds.

While exercise can be a wonderful addition to an overall treatment plan, it is by no means a replacement for therapy or a treatment for serious mental health concerns. “In some cases, exercise can be a very useful adjunct to other forms of treatment like psychotherapy and medication,” says Ho. “Especially in cases where depression or anxiety is milder, exercise appears to garner symptom improvement in similar ways that psychotherapy and medication treatment alone do,” she adds.

The bottom line is this: If you’re battling depression or anxiety, talk with your healthcare provider about how you can add exercise to an overall treatment plan. And remember, as Masand says, “the most important thing isn’t what exercise you choose to do, as long as you do something and do it often.”

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