Exercise, Anxiety, & Depression Why Regular Exercise Might Be The Medicine You Need

Exercise, Anxiety, & Depression: Why Regular Exercise Might Be The Medicine You Need

If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or a combination of the two, performing regular exercise might be the answer to some of your problems.

Depression and anxiety often feel insurmountable and only curable through drugs and intensive therapy. However, research has proven that regular physical activity can help reduce and possibly prevent symptoms (1, 2).

Best of all, evidence suggests that while exercise treats these disorders in different ways, just about any form of physically demanding activity can help, especially if you enjoy it.

Exercise Alleviates Symptoms Of Anxiety & Depression

Depression and anxiety are complex disorders with many possible causes and even more adverse effects on quality of life.

While many of us that suffer from these issues turn to pharmaceuticals and perhaps even therapy, physical exercise is still one of the best options for treating and possibly preventing symptoms (2).

Time and again, studies and even meta-analyses, which are compilations of results from many studies, show a strong correlation between regular exercise and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression (3).

These findings also suggest that any form of exercise will help. Whether you enjoy lifting weights, running outside, or attending a yoga class, there’s a chance you’ll benefit (4, 5).

With growing evidence of a connection, researchers have explored a few possible mechanisms behind the effect of exercise on mental health.

Exercise Can Be Anti-Inflammatory In The Brain

Disorders like depression and anxiety have been linked to excess inflammation. Still, one emerging theory suggests that immune cells in the brain, known as microglia, might be to blame (6, 7, 8).

Scientists have found that in patients with severe depression, there’s a correlation between their depressive symptoms, neuro-inflammation, and high microglial activity (6, 7).

The fascinating thing here is that when you exercise, your muscles produce signaling molecules known as myokines, which have an anti-inflammatory effect in the brain (9).

Since myokines can be anti-inflammatory, they seem to limit the activity of these microglial cells (9).

Inhibiting these microglia potentially reduces the brain inflammation that might be associated with the development of depression and other mental disorders (9).

Exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect in the brain

When you exercise, your muscles produce signaling molecules known as myokines, which have an anti-inflammatory effect in the brain.

Exercise Elevates BDNF

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein in the brain that signals brain cells to grow and continue surviving. Amazingly, its function appears linked to depression (10).

Studies suggest that depressed individuals display inadequate BDNF levels in critical regions of the brain. Even more, many popular anti-depressants appear to function, in part, through elevating BDNF (10, 11, 12).

Fortunately, exercise also happens to reliably raise BDNF levels in the brain, which might help limit or even treat depressive symptoms (13),

These findings do, however, suggest that performing challenging exercise consistently will be more effective at elevating BDNF than inconsistent, easier training (14, 15, 16).

This evidence means that if you want to gain the benefits of exercise on BDNF, you should regularly participate in an exercise routine that challenges you mentally and physically.

Exercise Shows Progress Is Possible

When shrouded with anxiety and depression, thoughts of the future often feel clouded.

While coping with these issues, I’ve found that regular and challenging exercise is one of the most effective ways to prove to myself that change and progress are possible.

Through exercise, I’ve realized that I can develop a mindset that allows me to visualize and manifest progression based on my actions.

Throughout my career, I’ve had different fitness goals ranging from powerlifting to running marathons. Fortunately, with planning and effort, I’ve been able to achieve those goals.

These experiences, however, weren’t easy. Since I’ve prioritized strength training for most of my life, training for and running a trail marathon was one of the most challenging events of my life.

But I did it.

Through fitness-related experiences like this one, I’ve learned that even when failure feels inevitable and the future hopeless, success and positive change is right around the corner.

For me, exercise draws back the curtain of depression and anxiety to reveal that progression and change is always possible with planning and focused effort and it can do the same for you.

Using Exercise To Alleviate Depression & Anxiety

Fortunately, exercise comes in all shapes and sizes and doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription!

But for exercise to be effective in alleviating your symptoms, you need to use it regularly and enjoy what you’re doing.

Perform Physical Activity You Enjoy

While fitness goals like building muscle or losing fat have specific exercise guidelines, it turns out that almost any form of exercise can improve your mental well-being.

In fact, most studies have shown that both cardiovascular and strength-focused exercises provide similar reductions in symptoms (4, 5).

For example, if you enjoy dancing, try attending a fitness dance class. Try rowing or rock climbing or even visit a yoga class. If you enjoy lifting weights and getting stronger, research suggests that’s ok too!

Best of all, experiments on this topic suggest that the effect of exercise on depression and anxiety is most effective when you’re using a form of exercise you enjoy (17).

Action Step: Try out a few different exercise methods including resistance, cardio, yoga and even outdoor activities, such as biking or rock climbing and prioritize the exercise you enjoy most.

Action Step: Try out a few different exercise methods including resistance, cardio, yoga and even outdoor activities, such as biking or rock climbing and prioritize the exercise you enjoy most.

Vary Your Workout Intensity

While incorporating any exercise is beneficial for treating depression and anxiety, you should incorporate low, moderate, and high-intensity workouts into your routine.

While some studies suggest that moderate to high intensities are the most effective, others show that exercise of any sort provides benefits. Either way, it’s a good idea to vary the type and intensity of exercise you use (5, 18, 19).

For instance, if you prefer cardio-type exercises, try to incorporate some low intensity exercise like walking or cycling for 20 minutes or more. From there, incorporate more intense exercise like sprinting or a boot camp class.

Mostly, if you’re exercising at a lower intensity where your heart rate stays low, you’ll need to exercise a bit longer than if you’re exercising at a higher intensity to gain benefit.

If you instead prefer to use strength training, you should follow a similar format.

Spend some time exercising using lighter resistance that allows you to perform anywhere from 15-20 repetitions per set. Then, incorporate heavier resistance that allows you to complete anywhere from 5-12 reps per set.

While it’s okay to prioritize the type and intensity of exercise you enjoy, regularly changing things up can provide new challenges that can help reduce your anxious symptoms.

Action Step: Regardless of the exercise you choose, make sure to have some challenging workouts that raise your heart rate significantly while also incorporating easier workouts that are mildly challenging.

What If I Already Exercise?

If you already exercise and still feel anxious or depressed, you might feel like there’s no hope in sight. However, simply incorporating a different form of exercise into your routine might do the trick.

If you prioritize cardio exercise regularly and have little experience with resistance training, incorporating weights from time to time might be enough to improve your symptoms.

Of course, focusing on the most enjoyable form of exercise should be your priority, but the challenge of incorporating a new type of activity might be the push you need.

Incorporate low, moderate, and high-intensity workouts into your routine.

Weekly Workout Example

  • Monday: Resistance Training
    30-45 Minutes at a low-moderate intensity
    15-20 repetitions per exercise
  • Tuesday: Low Intensity Cardio
    20-40 minutes
    Stair stepper, Treadmill, Bicycle Ride, etc.
  • Wednesday: 60-minute Yoga class
  • Thursday: Resistance Training
    30-45 Minutes at a moderate-high intensity
    8-12 repetitions per exercise
  • Friday: Higher Intensity Cardio
    15-45 minutes
    Boot camp/HIIT Class, Sprints, Running, etc.
  • Saturday: Full Rest Day
  • Sunday: Exercise & Intensity Of Choice
    Cardio, Resistance, Yoga, Fitness Class, Walking, etc.
    30-60 minutes

Final Thoughts

The consensus is that regular exercise is a smart choice for preventing and alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety (1, 2).

It appears that regular exercise can limit inflammation, which appears to be partially responsible for its effect on mental health. Best of all, these findings tell us that the exercise you enjoy the most will help the most, which isn’t always the case with other fitness-related goals.

With planning, effort, and a desire to heal, regular exercise might just be the “medicine” you need.


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