05/11/2014 12:07 GMT | Updated 05/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Exercise and Anxiety


Those who are physically fit are less likely to suffer from anxiety. It's often said that exercising helps us to manage anxiety and feel calmer, but does it really and how does it work?

The NHS in the UK state that if exercise was a pill, it would be one of the most cost effective drugs ever made. Studies show that being physically active can boost self esteem, mood, energy levels and sleep quality, as well as reducing your risk of stress, anxiety and depression.

But do we need to be exercising intensively to reap the benefits?

No. It's been shown that by exercising at moderate intensity we still get the same health benefits. 'Moderate' intensity just means that, while exercising, we would be unable to sing a tune, but could still hold a conversation without gasping for air. If 'high intensity' exercise is too much for you, or if you're just starting out, moderate intensity exercise will still give you lots of benefits.


The recommendation from the NHS in the UK is to have 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 days a week.

Unfit? Don't let that deter you, since if you're unfit you stand to gain the most benefit from exercising. It has been shown that the less fit and the more anxious you are, the more you have to gain from taking exercise.

So how does exercise help?

  • Studies have shown that taking regular aerobic exercise reduces the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight or flight response. With this down-regulated, we are likely to respond more calmly to stressful situations.
  • Exercise reduces levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones.
  • Exercise, especially high intensity exercise, causes us to produce endorphins which can create a feeling of euphoria and reduce sensitivity to pain. Endorphins give us a sense of well being and happiness and are released as a result of 'stressing' the body during exercise. It may sound counter-intuitive but endorphins are the body's natural pain killers, so by 'stressing' the body (in a good way) we can relieve the effects of chronic stress.
  • Studies in animals have shown that exercise causes the brain to generate more brain cells in the hippocampus. This is important because the hippocampus has been shown to be particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of stress, which slows down the generation of brain cells. Essentially, stress can damage the brain and exercise could help it to repair.
  • Exercise could help us to have a greater sense of self-efficacy, which could in turn lower anxiety levels. Self efficacy relates to how well we feel we can cope with a threat. If we feel we have control over a situation and we can trust ourselves to be able to succeed, we are said to have good self-efficacy. The psychologist Albert Bandura states that if we can overcome the challenges posed by exercise, we improve our self-efficacy. One study found that moderate intensity exercise gave the greatest benefit in self efficacy, since the challenge was not too large or too small - helping us to feel in control and successful.
  • Taking time out - Having a distraction away from anxiety by giving us something else to focus on is another theory as to why exercise can lower anxiety levels. A study found that practising meditation, having a rest and taking exercise were all equally good at lowering anxiety, which lead the researchers to believe that distraction was the key to why this was.

Hopefully this has given you some motivation to get our there and get active. Exercise is not necessarily going to be a panacea for your anxiety, but it will make a huge difference and it should be an essential part of your anxiety management routine. Start slowly, perhaps by taking a brisk walk, and build your way up as your fitness and confidence grows.

I'm feeling pretty motivated to exercise myself now! Time for a jog round the park...

What types of exercise do you most enjoy? Do you find it helps you to manage stress and anxiety?

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