exercise for anxiety

Exercising to keep your anxiety at bay

Exercise and anxiety have a bit in common. They both cause increased heart rate and breathing. They both make you sweaty. And you can’t seem to think of much else at the time!

A little on anxiety…

Anxiety is something we all feel, at some point, in some way or another. It may look and feel slightly different for everyone.

It’s a natural reaction to a ‘threat’ that happens at a certain point in our bodies stress response. In these situations, your sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis shift into high gear.

When you’re preparing to do a speech, it’s great. It sharpens your attention so you can rise to the challenge. Completely normal.

But if you worry when there’s no real threat, to the point where you can’t function normally, that’s an anxiety disorder. There are loads of ways that people can control their anxiety.

18% of the population suffers from a clinical anxiety disorder.


Introducing exercise…

There’s plenty of research that shows exercise can help people manage symptoms of anxiety. One study looked at 54 sedentary college students with generalized anxiety disorder. They were split into two groups.

One group ran on treadmills at 60-90% of their maximum heart rate. The second group walked. Whilst both groups showed reduced anxiety levels, the rigorous exercise worked more quickly and effectively. Interestingly, students in this group reported less fear of the physical symptoms of anxiety.


running exercise

Here’s the theory about exercise & anxiety

When we raise our heart rate and our breathing in the context of exercise, we learn that these physical signs don’t necessarily lead to an anxiety attack. We become more comfortable with our body being aroused, and we don’t automatically assume that the arousal is a bad thing.

We use exercise to combat the symptoms of anxiety, and thus treat the state. While your level of fitness improves, you will chip away at the anxiety trait. Over time, you teach the brain that the symptoms don’t always spell doom and that you can survive. You’re reprogramming the cognitive misinterpretation.


A match made in physiological heaven

So, how does exercise do this?

Lots of ways:

  • As we start using our muscles, the body breaks down fat molecules in the blood stream to fuel them. These free fatty acids compete with tryptophan to catch a ride on our transport proteins, elevating its concentration in the blood stream. To equalize its levels, tryptophan pushes through the blood brain barrier, and is used as a building block for our old friend serotonin (feel good hormone).
  • BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is also released with exercise, also increases levels of serotonin, which enhances our sense of safety.
  • Moving the body also triggers the release of GABA, which is the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter (and the primary target for most anti-anxiety medications), which interrupts the obsessive feedback loop within the brain.
  • When our heart starts beating hard, its muscle cells produce a molecule called atrial natriuretic peptide. That puts the brakes on our hyper-aroused state, keeping us calmer.


So what should I do now?

Clearly there is a connection between how much you exercise, and how anxious you feel. Next time you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious, try squeezing some minutes of huff and puff exercise and see how you feel after.

A great place to start could be downloading the free Mindful Running Pack developed by Nike and Headspace. Their guided runs will help you focus on your breathing and thoughts, with a little support along the way! Download it here.


Give it a go and see how well it works for you!


If you’re living with a mental health condition like anxiety, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist can prescribe an individualised exercise program to get you moving safely. To find an expert near you, click here.

Exercise Physiologist - Jacinta Brinsley

Jacinta Brinsley is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at iNform Health and Fitness Solutions, and is currently completing a PHD on Mental Health.