Exercise for Anxiety and Depression – How it Works


If I’m being honest, exercise is probably the hardest thing for someone with depression to do.

It takes a lot of effort and determination to get yourself prepared for any type of movement, let alone heading to a gym.

Those with anxiety might find it a bit easier because it can be a way to “relax” and get out of your head, at least that is the way it works for me.

Exercise for anxiety and depression has been studied for many years, and continues to be every day.

With mental health as a hot topic, and self harm at an all time high…I think it is important to note that mental illness is a chronic disease.

Whether it be from the food we are eating, our lifestyle, or a chemical imbalance..it’s no secret that most of us know someone who suffers with anxiety and/or depression.

And that is not to be taken lightly. I am one of those people who suffers from anxiety.

Usually I can keep it at bay, but somedays you just can’t shake the feeling.

One thing I know has helped me, and does everyday, is movement.

Movement is literally medicine, and should be prescribed to everyone just like any other pill or supplement.

Let me share with you WHY exercise for anxiety and depression is so beneficial!

“Depression affects roughly 9.5% of the U.S. adult population each year, and it is estimated that approximately 17% of the U.S. population will suffer from a major depressive episode at some point in their lifetime. Depression has been ranked as the leading cause of disability in the United States, with over $40 billion being spent each year on lost work productivity and medical treatment related to this illness. Recent research suggests that between the years of 1987 and 1997, the rate of outpatient treatment for depression in the United States tripled and that health care costs related to this disorder continue to rise.” From the NCBI article “The benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed” by Lynette L. Craft, Ph.D. and Frank M. Perna, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Benefits of Exercise for Anxiety and Depression

People who don’t have depression or anxiety have a hard time understanding it. They don’t know what it feels like, why it happens, or why we can’t help it. But I know how it works, and I know that exercise can help.

Release of Endorphins

We know that some people with clinical depression or anxiety have what is known as a “chemical imbalance”. Meaning some chemicals in the brain are not lined up properly, and therefore cause us to feel less than ideal. But exercise can help this! It releases “happy hormones” or endorphins that make us feel happy and fulfilled! Along with endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin levels can also be increased during exercise; these are the other compounds responsible for our happiness!

Normalizes Sleep

Yes, exercise makes you tired. But not just during the act, even after the fact! Burning more calories and getting in a good sweat can help normalize your sleep schedule. You expend more energy, which makes it easier for you to fall asleep, and you will likely stay asleep longer. This is also due to the fact that your hormones are going to start working with you, and that stress hormone cortisol will have time to level back out before rising again in the morning!

Brain Health

Researchers also think that exercise, with the addition of better sleep, can help to protect the brain and allow it to function at higher rates. This means “Exercise may be a way of biologically toughening up the brain so stress has less of a central impact.” CHEERS to brain health and living longer, and being cognitive for longer!

Personal Trainer Haley Perry

Mimics “panic” episodes

Anxiety attacks are what happens when your heart starts racing, you break a sweat, and your blood pressure rises.. Well, exercise also creates these same symptoms. By intentionally putting yourself at risk for these feelings, you are associating it with safety instead of danger. That way, your brain starts to interpret anxiety feelings with the feel good feeling of exercise! Almost like an exposure to treatment type of situation!

More Confidence

Ahh yes, the positive side effect of exercise…FEELING GOOD! No one regrets a workout, or a walk, or movement of any type. Besides making you feel happy and energized, it can also give you more confidence. Studies show that a lot of people with depression find themselves depressed out of self-doubt and feeling like they aren’t good enough. Well, if you feel good, and you look good..chances are you are going to be able to make it a consistent habit and start to engage with others more frequently, pulling yourself out of the depressive state!

Mind Clearing

For those 20 minutes…60 minutes…all you think about is where you are and what you are doing. You think about your heart pounding, the weight you’re lifting, what exercise comes next. There is no time to think other thoughts! And usually by the time you’re done, you forgot about why you were feeling so down in the first place. Besides, if you have the chance to think about things that make you anxious and worried while exercising, you aren’t going hard enough!

Healthier Habits

Exercise usually doesn’t come alone. You don’t typically exercise without changing at least one other aspect of your lifestyle…diet. Whether it be all the time, or a few meals a week…we usually start to clean up our diet when we partake in exercise. Because who wants to eat like crap and not make the exercise you are doing worth it?! Studies also show that eating healthy, less processed food can be linked to relieving anxiety and depression as well.

The brain is a complex organ in the body. It has a mind of its own (lol) and we sometimes can’t control its actions. But we can control is training it to respond the way we need it to. Exercise, diet, chronic disease has been researched for years, and will continue to for centuries..so it isn’t rocket science when we say that it WORKS. That it is possible to reverse the effects of anxiety and depression you feel with movement and diet. It doesn’t have to be big changes at once, it can be something as small as a 10 minute walk per day. No two people respond the same way…but the same two people can both benefit from some form of exercise. That is why I think medical doctors should be prescribing movement as medicine as often as they are prescribing pills! Because if something that is FREE can benefit you just as much, if not more than, an expensive pill….then we must utilize it!

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Haley Rowe March 16, 2019