When anxiety is haunting your days and your mind won’t stop racing at night, exercise is a go-to tool for giving you mental peace. We typically think of exercise as training the muscles and heart, but studies show it has an equally powerful impact on the brain. Exercise improves the health of your brain cells, and supports cognition, mood, and self-confidence. Surprisingly, research even shows it is as effective for treating depression as medication. The benefits even extend to lowering stress and treating anxiety, helping you calm that constant disquiet that highjacks your life.
This raises the question, what type of exercise is best?
The simple answer is that whatever type of exercise you enjoy is your best choice. That still leaves a lot of room for confusion, since some people don’t really like any kind of exercise. Others only view hardcore, all-out activity as acceptable. Some people gravitate towards mind-body modes like yoga, whereas others don’t know how to train with weights and find themselves stuck with cardio machines.
Therefore, this article will provide some guidelines for getting the best anxiety-lowering effects from exercise.
#1: Include Strength Training
Anxiety and the related mental issues of depression, chronic stress, and fatigue bring with them dysregulation of the HPA axis that modulates hormone balance. This leads to higher cortisol and out of whack neurotransmitters. Strength training can help fix this.
First, strength training helps balance cortisol release and can reset the HPA axis for better chemical balance. Second, lifting weights helps maintain lean mass, which is very important because cortisol breaks down lean tissue so that you lose muscle. Lifting also improves blood sugar regulation, which is a bonus since irregular blood sugar is associated with feeling jittery, which can compound anxiety.
#2: Use A Lower Training Volume
High volume training, whether in the form of long-duration endurance exercise or intense, high-rep weight workouts are generally a bad choice if lowering anxiety is a goal. High volume training raises the stress hormone cortisol, which has the unfortunate side effect of increasing the experience of anxiety. Most people with anxiety already have an elevated cortisol curve, and doing high volume training will exacerbate the effect, leading to insomnia, a racing mind, and an inability to wind down at night.
Instead, you want to dial the volume down. This doesn’t mean you can’t still train hard if you like getting sweaty but it’s important to reduce the stress on the body. For endurance training, start by cutting your training time in half, or try a different training mode completely, such as interval training, which is by its nature low volume.
For weight training, dial back your reps and sets and lengthen rest periods. Where you might have trained 4 to 5 sets, drop your volume back to 2 to 3 sets. Reps can still be in the 6 to 15 range, depending on training goal, but avoid short rest periods, giving yourself 2 to 5 minutes to recover between sets. Keep workouts to less than an hour, and don’t be afraid to shorten training time to 30 to 45 minutes if it means you can get some extra soothing activity in by doing yoga, stretching, or other mind-body exercise.
#3: Be Smart About Conditioning
Moderating training volume applies to conditioning workouts as well. If you’re in the habit of obliterating yourself with a gazillion interval repeats, you’re probably not doing your anxiety any favors. Intense, high-volume training overstimulates the nervous system and the body isn’t able to recover effectively, which means that cortisol and other chemical transmitters will get out of balance.
Low volume interval training such as the Wingate protocol (four 30-second sprint repeats with 4 minutes) rest has been shown improve mood, enhance body composition (increase lean mass and reduce body fat), while resetting the HPA axis that regulates stress. Other protocols that you can try include 20 minutes of 1-minute intervals interspersed with 1-minute active rest (on a bike this would be easy cycling, on a track it would be walking), or 8-second cycle intervals alternated with 12 seconds active rest.
For some people, sprint training just isn’t the thing, in which case walking is a great option that can lower anxiety and cortisol while boosting mood and well-being. Hiking in nature is especially effective, but the key is to find a way to enjoy the movement, whether that means watching TV while you’re doing it, listening to audiobooks, or going with a friend.
#4: Load Up On Mind-Body Exercise
There’s no down side to mindful activities that help you connect with your body and enjoy moving. Studies show that yoga, tai chi, judo, dancing, qi gong, and others will lower anxiety while also reducing cortisol and inflammation. Stretching, foam rolling, Zumba, pilates, and other martial arts are likely equally effective for helping you find your tranquility.
#5: Ensure Recovery From Workouts
You know that rundown, achy feeling that comes over you when you just don’t want to train. What used to be one of the highlights of your day now feels like a drudge. You begin to dread your workouts, which can be a major cause of anxiety itself, especially if you are an athlete or concerned with body composition.
Counterintuitively, this is a time when you need to step back and focus on recovery. Most likely, cortisol is elevated, and you haven’t been giving your body what it needs to recuperate from the losses that it suffers through the act of hard training and living. At this point, it’s time to figure out a mode of exercise you enjoy, whether it’s trying a new sport (or picking up an old one), dialing back intensity and volume, changing your exercise mode, or adding a mind-body practice like the ones listed in #4.
Massage and other forms of body work, saunas, swimming, dancing, and psychological therapy are just a few of the actions you can take to improve recovery and relieve anxiety. For more recovery ideas, check out the Massive List of 50 Tips To Improve Recovery.