How can exercise help with anxiety?

How can exercise help with anxiety? teaser
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health difficulties in Australia, with approximately one quarter of the population reporting experiences of anxiety across a lifetime. Anxiety can feel overwhelming and impact on both our physical and emotional health. When consumed with worry, it may be difficult to sleep, concentrate, and complete day to day activities. 

Exercise has long been established as playing a vital role in our physical health, but exercise is also one of the most effective ways of improving our mental health. Check out the list below for how exercise can help reduce symptoms of anxiety.

Benefits of exercise
Mood stabilizer. Endorphins, or feel-good chemicals, impact on our ability to regulate our mood. This means that endorphins are used by our bodies as a coping mechanism. Endorphins are well-known for their involvement in addictive behaviour, but these same neurotransmitters can be released in more healthy ways through exercise.  

Sleep. The neurotransmitter GABA plays a role in keeping the firing of neurons in check. In other words, the more GABA that is released the more inhibitory neurons we have flowing in our body to help quiet our brain activity. Exercise has been shown to release GABA and reduce the excitable neurons that keep us awake into the long hours of the night.

Physical stressors. Anxiety is the “fight or flight” system activated in your body. When stressed, cortisol is released and our bodies kick into “fight or flight” mode. Instances of inactivity may cause our bodies to misfire cortisol, leading us to feel dysregulated. In contrast, exercise has been shown to aid in the depletion of cortisol and thus the return to normal levels of stress hormones in our bodies.   

Practice. When we exercise our body is forced to engage in the same physiological systems that are involved in responding to stress. By exercising our bodies get practice in learning how to communicate between the central and sympathetic nervous system. This means the more we exercise the more practice our bodies get at becoming efficient in responding to stress.
Factors to consider when choosing to exercise
Engage in exercise that you find enjoyable. Research shows that we are more likely to continue engaging in exercises we enjoy compared to exercises that feel forced or unengaging. Stay true to yourself.
Find exercise that suits your preferences. If groups are your thing, then buddy up. Otherwise, find activities you can do on an individual basis.

Motivation. Although it may be tempting at times to exercise as a means of influencing our appearance, research shows that choosing to exercise for intrinsic reasons will help exercise stay around for the long-term compared to when we choose to exercise for extrinsic reasons (i.e., approval from others).

Goals. Slow and steady wins the race. We often want to jump to the finish line as quickly as possible, but this approach can set us up to fail. If we set our goals too high, then we are less likely to meet our goals and this can leave us feeling down. By setting smaller short-term goals on the way to our long-term goals we feel good about our accomplishments and are less likely to feel discouraged. Setting goals that are challenging, but achievable will also provide a balance that helps motivate us for the long haul.

Workability. Choose exercise programs that fit with your schedule. If mornings are not your thing, then sleep in and hit up the exercise part of your day in the evening.

Duration. Physical activity guidelines suggest that we should be active for a minimum of 150 minutes per week. If this number seems too overwhelming, keep in mind that as little as five minutes of exercise has been shown to activate anti-anxiety effects.  

Intensity. Exercise benefits are shown to be greater when we get up to a pace of “huff and puff”. However, smaller changes to incidental activity can assist in combating the effects of inactivity on our mental health. Bouts of physical activity can be attained through changes to incidental activities, such as taking the stairs rather than the lift or parking further away from your office to allow for a short walk.

360 Health + Community have a team of mental health professionals all over the state who can help you with a range of mental health concerns. Give us a call on 1300 706 922 or visit to find out more and book an appointment.
Ashley Fenner
Mental Health Clinician
360 Health + Community
Back to news list