Exercising Anxiety Away

Exercise programs led to a reduction in anxiety symptoms

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Have you ever felt a "runner's high," that relaxing, happy feeling after a bout of exercise? Research shows that it could be an effective treatment for some types of anxiety.

Researchers reviewed previous studies and trials on anxiety symptoms and exercise programs for healthy people, people with chronic illnesses and people who had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

They found that exercise often helped to reduce symptoms of anxiety and can sometimes be used as a part of anxiety disorder treatment.

Exercise treatment showed the most consistent results for healthy people, people with chronic illnesses and people with panic disorder. The researchers emphasized that more studies are needed to look at the relationship between exercise programs and specific anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"Talk to your doctor about an exercise program if you have anxiety."

Matthew Herring, PhD, Jacob Lindheimer, MA, and Patrick O'Connor, PhD, conducted the review to see how exercise affected anxiety.

Anxiety is a state of worry that triggers certain physical responses in the body. Most people experience anxiety, and some people experience it more frequently and intensely than others.

People with anxiety disorders can deal with excessive, severe anxiety. Anxiety disorders encompass phobias (intense fears), social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to the article, about 40 million Americans have an anxiety disorder every year.

The authors of this review looked at several studies dealing with anxiety, anxiety disorders and physical activity to note how exercise affected anxiety symptoms.

Previous studies have shown that people with less intense anxiety get more exercise than those with more intense anxiety. However, the authors of the article noted that this relationship could go both ways. People with severe anxiety may feel less of a desire to exercise, or people who exercise may experience less extreme symptoms.

The researchers looked at several previous studies and analyses to see how exercise affects people with anxiety but without an anxiety disorder.

They found that trials show a reduction in anxiety after both strength and aerobic exercise in healthy people without serious physical or mental illness. Additionally, a review of eight studies has shown that yoga is a promising treatment for anxiety.

People who have chronic illness but no anxiety disorder often experience anxiety. The researchers looked at previous trials on exercise programs for people with chronic illnesses like cancer, inflammatory diseases, and COPD.

People with chronic diseases who experienced anxiety also benefited from exercise programs. Some studies showed that exercise programs that were short, but included longer sessions, were most effective.

The researchers noted that previous studies found mixed results for exercise programs used to treat people with anxiety disorders.

Patients with panic disorder seemed to benefit particularly from exercise training, according to a clinical trial that tested 12 weeks of aerobic exercise against 12 weeks of group therapy. Both of the treatments led to improved symptoms.

Patients with other anxiety disorders like social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder showed some improvements in previous studies, sometimes in addition to other treatments like therapy or medicine.

The researchers suggested that physical activity may reduce anxiety symptoms by improving patients' self-esteem, teaching persistence in difficult circumstances and the chemicals that the brain releases during exercise.

"In life, we often tend to forget the 'mind-body' connection that occurs to either support or hinder your mental and physical health. The benefits of exercise can produce a multitude of positive hormonal effect inside of your body, strengthen your cardiovascular conditioning, and improve eating and sleeping habits. All of these important exercise influences will then potentially reduce one's concerns with anxiety, due to the improved connection between the body and mind," said Daniel Berarducci, MA, CPC, a Clinical Professional Counselor at Person-Holistic Innovations in Las Vegas, NV.

"As an example, when you engage in exercise, you complete 'rhythmic breathing' (in through the nose, out through the mouth) in order to improve your oxygen intake. When one experiences anxiety concerns, they often find themselves 'holding their breath'. Through the repeated practice that is engaged in exercise and 'how to breath', one is learning how to reduce their anxiety on a continual basis. One of the foundations of anxiety reduction with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is learning how to reduce anxiety through deep-breathing relaxation. Therefore, the repeated 'practice' in exercise routines functionally teaches one how to reduce their anxiety concerns," Berarducci said.

The authors of the review concluded that exercise training can help improve anxiety symptoms for both healthy people and people with chronic illnesses. It may also help people with anxiety disorders, sometimes in addition to other types of treatment.

The researchers emphasized the need for more studies examining the effects of exercise on specific anxiety disorders.

The article was published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine on November 6.

The authors did not disclose funding sources or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
November 8, 2013
Last Updated:
January 22, 2014