It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that exercise benefits us on many levels. It keeps the heart healthy, our bodies strong, and puts our minds at ease. The first two seem very intuitive; in a way, we are practicing the full capacity of what our bodies are naturally able to do and therefore increase our ability to do those tasks more efficiently. However, what exercise does to give us an altered state of mind is a bit more abstract, but crucial nonetheless to maintaining our mental health and specifically gives us a way to manage out-of-control anxiety and stress. If this is something you struggle with, listen up, because exercise could be the answer.
There is no shortage of research showing that exercise can improve mental health through a reduction of stress and anxiety. Broadly, the consensus is that mood improves significantly after exercise , with the largest improvements coming in people who are unhappy to begin with  and physically fit people having lower stress and anxiety overall .
“studies have consistently associated high self-reported levels of habitual physical activity with better mental health”
Despite this, it is concerning that only 30% of people in Western populations exercise regularly, with 50% of people who start an exercise regimen quitting in 3-6 weeks . Hopefully, after seeing some of the different ways that exercise can improve your mental health, you will become a part of the 30% of regular exercisers and reap the potential rewards.
Of the many studies out there, I have chosen some of the clearest and to-the-point examples. In a few self-reported surveys, there is a clear correlation between exercise and mental health. A survey was sent to a whopping 16,483 college students and exercise participation was shown to be strongly correlated with lower amounts of stress and anxiety overall .
If that sample wasn’t large enough to convince you, another study randomly chose 55,000 participants (I feel bad for the folks who had to compile that data!) and the result was a statistically significant correlation between the amount of exercise and perceived anxiety and mental health .
“self-reported level of recreational physical activity correlated with better mental health, including fewer symptoms of both anxiety and depression”
While surveys are helpful insights into how exercise is correlated with mental health, in the end, they are just surveys that depend solely on the subjective feelings of the individuals filling them out. Luckily, there are clinically based studies out there to give quantifiable evidence of the effect exercise has.
In many of these studies, anxiety was measured before and after workouts along with before and after consistent exercise for an extended period of time (commonly 8-12 weeks). Again, the results are clear. As one study put it, they “found that both [high-intensity and low-intensity] exercise conditions led to clinically significant changes in anxiety sensitivity that were superior to the [control]” . What they are saying is that pretty much all exercise led to the participants having a sense of lowered anxiety after exercise.
Digging a little deeper into the specifics, another study found that high-intensity exercise lowered anxiety faster than low-intensity and interestingly also decreased the fear people have of their anxiety becoming out of control . Both methods of exercise worked, but the higher the intensity, the greater positive impact there is to be had on mental health and anxiety reduction.
“both high- and low-intensity exercise reduced anxiety sensitivity. However, high-intensity exercise caused more rapid reductions in a global measure of anxiety sensitivity and produced more treatment responders than low-intensity exercise. Only high-intensity exercise reduced the fear of anxiety-related bodily sensations.”
Although consistent exercise is recommended for general physical and mental health maintenance, as little as a single session has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety . If you are feeling particularly stressed or anxious, it would be well worth your time to go to the gym and lift some weights, do some cardio, or really anything you have time for or feel confident doing.
Confidence and a positive mentality are crucial to your success with working out when it comes to reducing stress and anxiety. Those who were confident in their exercise ability and entered with a mindset of knowing they were going to feel better had the greatest results ,. The “if you believe it, you can achieve it” mentality doesn’t always work, but here, studies show it does. When you do go to the gym, there is no need to feel intimidated. There are people of all types trying to create a better version of themselves, and some are just at different stages than others. Go in with confidence and you won’t be disappointed. With that being said, if you are just starting out, don’t overdo it. This could be demoralizing, or worse, lead to injury. Don’t be afraid to push yourself, but ease your way into it. Every effort counts. If you are afraid of your age being a factor, don’t be! The positive effects of working out on mental health actually increase with age , kind of like a fine wine.
So, we know that exercise has a significant positive impact on mental health, stress, and anxiety, but how does it work? Well, there are actually many psychological and physiological changes happening. In fact, there are too many to name here so I will name some of the key factors. From a psychological standpoint, when you go to the gym, you are seeing and interacting with other people in a hopefully positive way along with setting and achieving your goals. You might even take up a genuine interest in the activity along the way. These are all proven ways to decrease stress and anxiety . Alternatively, when you tough it out during a workout and leave your comfort zone, you are training yourself have a higher tolerance to stress which translates to other areas of life . You become conditioned to deal with stress and become able to push through what would normally cause stress and anxiety.
When it comes to the physiological side of it, there are a few interesting processes that occur. When we have excess stress and anxiety, our stores of norepinephrine in the brain become depleted. Norepinephrine is a molecule that plays is a part of our adrenaline response and plays a role in our fight-or-flight moments. During exercise, we get increased production of this molecule which is why afterward many feel a relief of stress and anxiety . When exercise is done consistently long-term, we may be able to sustain this increased production.
Another change at the molecular level involves endogenous opioid activity. During exercise, our bodies make chemicals that stimulate opioid receptors . When this happens, we get a boost in our mood and an inhibition in our negative response to stress. These molecules are completely natural and healthy for us, unlike the chemicals being misused in the opioid crisis.
With all of the scientific evidence on what exercise can do to help improve mental health and lower anxiety and stress, I hope that if you don’t already workout, you will be at least willing to give it a shot. Combine this with techniques discussed in other posts to give yourself the best possible chance to decrease your stress and anxiety naturally through your own efforts. Just give it your all and only good things will come.
How has exercise helped you? Are there any tips or tricks you have found?