How Can Exercise Help With Anxiety?

How Can Exercise Help With Anxiety?

If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely that you’re suffering from anxiety. It’s tough because sometimes anxiety seems far away — so far away, in fact, that the idea of it seems silly, like you couldn’t have possibly had it before. Other times (maybe like right now), it’s so present and possessive that it feels like anxiety is all there is. You’ve tried a few things: medication, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, but now you’re wondering, “What about exercise? How can exercise help with anxiety, if at all?” Exercise certainly does wonders for those with anxiety, and it can help in the following ways:

By Expending Energy

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Anxiety is one of the up-swing emotions. (Sounds really technical, right? That’s just our simple way of differentiating anxiety from “down-swing” emotions like depression, sadness, calm, and contentment.) Other “up-swing” emotions and responses include enthusiasm, excitement, and surprise.

These types of emotions and responses are energizing, but rarely does our culture offer a socially acceptable way to expel that energy. Grownups don’t shriek with joy or jump up and down with excitement, and indeed, there are no socially recognized ways of appropriately expressing anxiety.

So, what do you do with all this energy? With no way to expel it during the course of your day, it festers inside you. The more you try to suppress it, the more it makes itself known. When you exercise, the energy that has been writhing in your body is finally released. 

Exercising for a half hour, two or three times a week can be enough to see a difference. However, if you have particularly prevalent anxiety, you may consider working out for 20 to 30 minutes every day.

By Releasing Neurotransmitters

As psychological studies make more and more appearances in online articles and self-help books, words like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins become commonplace. But what do they mean, how are they released, and how do they help? What do they have to do with anxiety?


You may be familiar with the word serotonin, and identify it as the neurotransmitter that enables you to feel happiness. Serotonin does quite a bit more than that, however. According to Dr. Alex Korb in Psychology Today, serotonin is the “molecule of willpower and delaying gratification.” Aerobic exercises in particular help boost serotonin, which helps alleviate anxiety by calming that sense of urgency in your body.


You’ve probably heard more than once that exercise releases endorphins, and that endorphins are supposed to make you feel good. But the only thing you usually feel after exercise is tired. Endorphins are usually released in the recovery period for exercise. When you stop working it, it feels like a relief. This repeated feeling of relief helps you alleviate stress, which can help with anxiety as well.


While serotonin helps you “delay gratification,” dopamine helps with positively reinforcing good habits. If you establish a workout routine, in which you repeatedly feel that relief in your recovery period (thank you, endorphins!), then your body will, in turn, release dopamine which helps your body remember that working out made you feel good.

SEE RELATED: 5 Ways Exercise Helps People with ADHD and Autism

List of Exercises to Reduce Anxiety

Anxiety can be a debilitating condition, impacting both mental and physical health. Incorporating regular physical activity into your routine is an effective strategy for reducing symptoms of anxiety. Exercise helps by releasing endorphins, natural mood lifters, while also taking your mind off worries. Here is a list of exercises known for their anxiety-reducing benefits:

1. Yoga: Yoga combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to relieve stress, improve concentration, and reduce symptoms of anxiety. The mindful breathing and slow movements help calm the mind and reduce tension in the body. Various styles, such as Hatha or Vinyasa, can cater to different preferences and levels of physical fitness.

2. Tai Chi: This gentle form of martial arts focuses on slow, graceful movements and deep breathing. Tai Chi is often referred to as “meditation in motion” and has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Its low-impact nature makes it accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels.

3. Aerobic Exercise: Aerobic exercises, such as walking, running, swimming, or cycling, are effective in reducing overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and boost self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects, making it a highly accessible option for most people.

4. Resistance Training: Studies have shown that moderate-intensity resistance training, such as weight lifting, can reduce symptoms of anxiety. This type of exercise helps in not only building strength but also in focusing the mind on the tasks at hand, providing a break from anxious thoughts.

5. Pilates: Pilates focuses on core strength, flexibility, and mindful breathing. Like yoga, it emphasizes controlled movements and breathwork, which can aid in managing anxiety by promoting relaxation and mental clarity.

By Triggering the Fight or Flight Response

You may have wondered about the difference between worry and anxiety. What is healthy and what is an issue? Worry stems from external forces: You might be worried that a cop will pull you over if you see a police car and realize you’ve been speeding. However, if you don’t see a police officer and you’re not speeding but are still concerned about getting pulled over, this is closer related to anxiety.

So, what’s the deal? Why does this happen? Anxiety usually starts with physical symptoms (racing heart, sweaty palms, shakiness, fidgeting, etc.) and then the mind tries to discern the reason for these feelings. Where is the threat? it wants to know and comes up with a reason, even if it doesn’t make sense. In other words, having anxiety means that you’re in a constant state of fight or flight. You’re hypervigilant, even when there are no external threats.

When you exercise, you’re sort of forcing your body into a state of fight or flight. That makes sense: Your heart races and you’re sweating. But wouldn’t this make your anxiety worse, if the symptoms are so similar? By intentionally putting your body in a state of fight or flight and working through it, you’re showing your body that there is no real threat present. The more you do this, the more reassured your body becomes, lessening your anxiety symptoms outside of a workout setting.

What’s Next?: Working with Personal Trainers Who Understand

While exercise in general can be helpful to those with anxiety, it can be especially helpful to work with a fitness professional who understands anxiety and the impact exercise has on it. The personal trainers at Special Strong are trained to work with disabilities, both physical and cognitive. Your anxiety might not be so debilitating that it’s considered a disability, but anxiety is common enough among the special needs population that the exercise techniques our trainers employ can also positively impact your mental health.

If you’re interested in tapping into exercise as a natural treatment for anxiety, sign up for one of our private training sessions near you today.

Special Strong provides adaptive fitness for children, adolescents, and adults with mental, physical and cognitive challenges. Start your own Special Strong gym franchise today and create a lasting impact on your community.