When you have anxiety or depression, exercise often seems like the last thing you want to do. But once you get motivated, exercise can make a big difference.
Exercise helps prevent and improve a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Research on anxiety, depression and exercise shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help reduce anxiety and improve mood.
The links between anxiety, depression and exercise aren't entirely clear — but working out can definitely help you relax and make you feel better. Exercise may also help keep anxiety and depression from coming back once you're feeling better.
How does exercise help depression and anxiety?
Exercise probably helps ease depression in a number of ways, which may include:
- Releasing feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression (neurotransmitters and endorphins)
- Reducing immune system chemicals that can worsen depression
- Increasing body temperature, which may have calming effects
Exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits too. It can help you:
- Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
- Take your mind off worries. Exercise is a distraction that can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression.
- Get more social interaction. Exercise may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.
- Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage anxiety or depression is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how badly you feel, or hoping anxiety or depression will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.
What kind of exercise is best?
The word "exercise" may make you think of running laps around the gym. But exercise includes a wide range of activities that boost your activity level to help you feel better. Certainly running, lifting weights, playing basketball and other fitness activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can gardening, washing your car, or strolling around the block and other less intense activities. Anything that gets you off the couch and moving is exercise that can help improve your mood.
You don't have to do all your exercise at once either. Broaden how you think of exercise and find ways to fit activity into your routine. Add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park a little farther away from your work to fit in a short walk. Or, if you live close to your job, consider biking to work.
How much is enough?
Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week can significantly improve depression symptoms. But smaller amounts of activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — can make a difference. It may take less time exercising to improve your mood when you do more-vigorous activities, such as running or bicycling.
The mental health benefits of exercise may last only if you stick with it over the long term — another good reason to focus on finding activities you enjoy.
How do I get started — and stay motivated?
Starting and sticking with an exercise routine can be a challenge. Here are some steps that can help. Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program to make sure it's safe for you.
- Identify what you enjoy doing. Figure out what type of physical activities you're most likely to do, and think about when and how you'd be most likely to follow through. For instance, would you be more likely to do some gardening in the evening or go for a jog in the pre-dawn hours? Go for a bike ride or play basketball with your children after school? Do what you enjoy to help you stick with it.
- Get your mental health provider's support. Talk to your doctor or other mental health provider for guidance and support. Discuss concerns about an exercise program and how it fits into your overall treatment plan.
- Set reasonable goals. Your mission doesn't have to be walking for an hour five days a week. Think realistically about what you may be able to do. Tailor your plan to your own needs and abilities rather than trying to meet unrealistic guidelines that you're unlikely to meet.
- Don't think of exercise as a chore. If exercise is just another "should" in your life that you don't think you're living up to, you'll associate it with failure. Rather, look at your exercise schedule the same way you look at your therapy sessions or medication — as one of the tools to help you get better.
- Address your barriers. Figure out what's stopping you from exercising. If you feel self-conscious, for instance, you may want to exercise at home. If you stick to goals better with a partner, find a friend to work out with. If you don't have money to spend on exercise gear, do something that's virtually cost-free, such as walking. If you think about what's stopping you from exercising, you can probably find an alternative solution.
- Prepare for setbacks and obstacles. Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how small. If you skip exercise one day, that doesn't mean you can't maintain an exercise routine and may as well quit. Just try again the next day.
Do I need to see my doctor?
Talk to your doctor to make sure you know which activities, how much exercise and what intensity level is OK for you. Your doctor will consider any medications you take and health conditions you have. He or she may also have some good advice about getting started and staying motivated.
If you exercise regularly but anxiety or depression symptoms still interfere with your daily living, see your doctor or other mental health provider. Exercise is a great way to ease symptoms of anxiety or depression, but it isn't a substitute for psychotherapy or medications.