How Does Aerobic Exercise Affect Anxiety?


Anxiety and ExerciseAnxiety disorders cause you to feel stressed, tired and unhappy. They can interfere with your ability to get restful, refreshing sleep. They can also make you easily distracted and irritable.

Some of the more common anxiety disorders are Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (OCD), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These anxiety illnesses can become a distraction, keeping you from being able to engage fully in your work or your studies. Anxiety disorders can also have a negative effect on your interpersonal relationships; friends and family might notice that you don’t spend as much time with them or you don’t seem to be enjoying yourself around them (generally from being too distracted by your anxious thoughts).

Combating anxiety can be a challenge, especially when treatment is delayed. Some people attempt to cover up their anxiety by “self-medicating” with alcohol, nicotine or other drugs. Others overeat or overindulge in foods high in saturated fat, salt or sugar (e.g., cookies, candy or fast food). Other risky behaviors, like driving recklessly, can also result from anxiety.

An article by Bartley, Hay and Bloch (“Meta-analysis: Aerobic exercise for the treatment of anxiety disorders“) addresses how aerobic exercise can affect anxiety. The researchers simply compared data from two different kinds of studies:  those measuring the efficacy of aerobic exercise to reduce anxiety and those measuring the efficacy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) plus medication to reduce anxiety.

By studying the information from past studies, the researchers were able to determine that combination therapy (CBT with medication) is more likely to be effective in treating anxiety than aerobic exercise is.

So does this mean exercise will not help you with your anxiety? Not at all! Participants in the studies examined by the researchers who did not exercise at all did not show as much improvement in their anxiety. Regular, moderate- to high-intensity exercise can have great benefits for your body and your mind. Jogging or running around your neighborhood can be a good start. The more you work out, the better you get at it, and you should start to notice that you feel less stressed and less worried. Exercising regularly can also boost your self-confidence and distract you from negative thoughts that can foster anxiety.

If you suffer from anxiety, you can try to engage in healthy behaviors like exercise and meditation. However, if these methods don’t work, you should definitely consult with a licensed mental health professional to find out what treatment options are available.

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