Exercise and anxiety are fundamentally incompatible. So if you’re looking for a fast, free, and easy way to free yourself from anxiety…exercise is the perfect tool.

Before we get into that, let me welcome you to our new series here at Maness Hypnosis – the anxiety tool of the month. Every month, I’ll be showing you a proven tool that will help you overcome anxiety. In this article, you’ll learn:

Let’s get started!

Why exercise is a MUST

Overcoming anxiety is a matter of building a new lifestyle that is anxiety-proof. It’s like building a house. And the sturdiness of the house depends on the strength of the foundation. What is the foundation of an anxiety-free lifestyle? Half of it is exercise. The other half is relaxation which we’ll talk about in another article. This foundation will help get you up to speed and keep your momentum towards anxiety freedom.

Without exercise, every attempt to reduce anxiety will be a house of cards which will soon come crashing down. You don’t want that to happen, do you? No? Keep reading!

Exercise is a natural antidepressant

Exercise isn’t just the foundation of your anxiety-free lifestyle. It’s also the brightly colored curtains that you put over your windows. It makes the place a lot more cheerful! Evidence of the mood altering effects of exercise can be found in a 2019 study by Rafiq and collegues. They found a link between exercise and improved depression symptoms. Exercise and anxiety are also related through depression symptoms.[1]Rafiq, K., Adnan, B., Khalid, A., Akram, A., Saify, Z. S., Usman, T., Khan, S., Qureshi, H., & Ashraf, H. (2019). Physical Work Out: An Alternative Therapy for Stress & Depression. FUUAST … Continue reading Reducing depression symptoms will also reduce anxiety.

Wendy Green, the author of Anxiety: A Self-Help Guide to Feeling Better, says that exercise and anxiety are incompatible because exercise burns off stress hormones.[2]Green, W. (2016). Anxiety: A Self-Help Guide to Feeling Better: Vol. Revised edition. Vie. The lower your stress level, the less chance you have of being anxious. What’s more, exercise can help you sleep better, which has a calming effect on anxiety.[3]Green, W. (2016). Anxiety: A Self-Help Guide to Feeling Better: Vol. Revised edition. Vie.

Exercise and anxiety: No more avoidant behavior?

Exercise not only helps lift your mood, it also changes your behavior. Most people think of anxiety as an emotional disturbance. However, it is also a behavioral problem.

Avoidant behavior is the key feature of anxiety. It’s simple: reduce your avoidance behavior, reduce your anxiety.

Exercise is the opposite of avoidance. It’s an active behavior. Furthermore, exercise is one of those habits that can lead to other active behaviors. That’s why authors such as Charles Duhigg call exercise a keystone habit – a habit that naturally gives birth to other positive habits.[4]Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House.

In an overview of studies from 2019 and earlier, Bourbeau and colleagues found that exercise helped improve the results of behavior therapy. [5]Bourbeau, K., Moriarty, T., Ayanniyi, A., & Zuhl, M. (2020). The Combined Effect of Exercise and Behavioral Therapy for Depression and Anxiety: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Behavioral … Continue reading In a nutshell, behavioral therapy involves feeling better through planning and doing the activities you enjoy. Exercise can help you change your behavior more easily.

That means that whether you’re getting professional help or not, exercise will help you become a more active participant in your own life, thus reducing anxiety.

Exercise builds confidence

When you feel more confident, you’re less likely to feel anxious.[6]Green, W. (2016). Anxiety: A Self-Help Guide to Feeling Better: Vol. Revised edition. Vie. Any time you decide to do something and you follow through, it builds your confidence. So, you’ll feel more confident each time you exercise.

Exercise desensitizes you to anxiety

Going back to our house metaphor, exercise is not only the foundation and walls, but it’s also the insulation in those walls. It’s what keeps anxiety out. Exercise reduces anxiety sensitivity, or how much you fear anxious symptoms.

Anxiety sensitivity determines how easily you become anxious.[7]LeBouthillier, D. M., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2015). A Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise Reduces Anxiety Sensitivity But Not Intolerance of Uncertainty or Distress Tolerance: A Randomized Controlled … Continue reading Most anxiety problems, especially panic, are due to high anxiety sensitivity.[8]LeBouthillier, D. M., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2015). A Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise Reduces Anxiety Sensitivity But Not Intolerance of Uncertainty or Distress Tolerance: A Randomized Controlled … Continue reading

A 2015 study looked at the effect of exercise on anxiety sensitivity.[9]LeBouthillier, D. M., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2015). A Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise Reduces Anxiety Sensitivity But Not Intolerance of Uncertainty or Distress Tolerance: A Randomized Controlled … Continue reading A group of participants rode exercise bikes at 60-80% of their maximum heart rates. The control group only did stretching. There was a significant decrease in anxiety sensitivity for the exercise group, but not for the control group.

Exercise is exposure therapy

Exercise and anxiety are very similar feelings. When you exercise, your body feels similar to when you’re anxious. As a result, exercise is a form of exposure therapy.[10]LeBouthillier, D. M., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2015). A Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise Reduces Anxiety Sensitivity But Not Intolerance of Uncertainty or Distress Tolerance: A Randomized Controlled … Continue reading It desensitizes you to anxiety. You’ll also be less likely to have a panic attack.

No exercise habit yet? No problem!

The interesting thing about the exercise and anxiety study I’m talking about is that the results were based on only one workout! Anxiety sensitivity slowly declined after the session and remained lower up to a week later.[11]LeBouthillier, D. M., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2015). A Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise Reduces Anxiety Sensitivity But Not Intolerance of Uncertainty or Distress Tolerance: A Randomized Controlled … Continue reading 

That’s good news if you’re just getting started. You can see the benefits after your first try. Just think of how you might feel with a daily exercise habit! 

Does intensity matter?

LeBouthillier and colleagues found that exercise and anxiety were incompatible through moderate intensity exercise. Higher intensity did not produce better results.[12]LeBouthillier, D. M., & Asmundson, G. J. G. (2015). A Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise Reduces Anxiety Sensitivity But Not Intolerance of Uncertainty or Distress Tolerance: A Randomized Controlled … Continue reading For best results with exercise and anxiety reduction, many authors recommend aerobic exercise based on your maximum heart rate. You can find specific intensity recommendations here. 

What kind of exercise works best for anxiety?

Edmund Bourne, PhD and Lorna Garano make specific recommendations for exercise and anxiety in the book Coping with Anxiety.[13]Bourne, E. & Garano, L. (2003). Coping with Anxiety. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. They recommend 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise 4-5 days a week.

It’s important to choose the kind of exercise that best fits you. For example, you want to consider whether or not you need a low-impact exercise. Also, take into account any risk factors associated with different exercises. Finally, talk to your doctor before starting an exercise routine.

Here are the types of exercise Bourne and Garano recommend for anxiety-reduction:

  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Aerobics classes – good for structure/accountability
  • Walking – as long as its aerobic

Wendy Green also recommends specific anxiety-reduction exercises.[14]Green, W. (2016). Anxiety: A Self-Help Guide to Feeling Better: Vol. Revised edition. Vie. Not all of them are aerobic, but have many of the same benefits.

  • Housework
  • Gardening
  • Pilates
  • T’ai chi
  • Yoga

There’s also mindful walking, a practice involving paying attention to the feel of each step, the way each part of your body moves, and focusing on your breathing.[15]Forsyth, J. P., & Eifert, G. H. (2018). Anxiety Happens : 52 Ways to Find Peace of Mind. (p.47). New Harbinger Publications.

My exercise and anxiety recommendation

If you want the full benefits of exercise, including anxiety desensitization, I recommend aerobic exercise. However, just doing anything physical will often help you feel better. It’s not what you do to exercise, it’s that you do something, and do it regularly.

I hope you’ve seen that physical exercise is a must if you want to become anxiety free. Let’s recap the key benefits you’ll receive when you take up an exercise habit. Exercise helps you with:

  • Anxiety reduction
  • Lifts your spirits
  • Reduces avoidant behavior
  • Improves your confidence
  • Makes anxiety less likely to happen
  • Helps you overcome your fear of anxious symptoms
  • Helps you feel better about yourself

Remember, becoming anxiety free starts with a solid foundation. Exercise is a major part of an anxiety-free lifestyle. And if you want to live in the kind of house that keeps anxiety out, you need to maintain this foundation every day. When you do, other anxiety-reduction tools you use will be more effective. So, pick a type of exercise you like and get started today. Then, come back here for more anxiety-reduction tools!

While you’re waiting for the next anxiety tool of the month, get my free book so you can start getting a handle on your anxiety today!

References[+]