Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms

Depression and anxiety symptoms often improve with exercise. Here are some realistic tips to help you get started and stay motivated.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

When you have depression or anxiety, exercise often seems like the last thing you want to do. But once you get motivated, exercise can make a big difference.

Exercise helps prevent and improve a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Research on depression, anxiety and exercise shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help improve mood and reduce anxiety.

The links between depression, anxiety and exercise aren't entirely clear — but working out and other forms of physical activity can definitely ease symptoms of depression or anxiety and make you feel better. Exercise may also help keep depression and anxiety from coming back once you're feeling better.

How does exercise help depression and anxiety?

Regular exercise may help ease depression and anxiety by:

  • Releasing feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being
  • Taking your mind off worries so you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety

Regular exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits, too. It can help you:

  • Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
  • Get more social interaction. Exercise and physical activity may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.
  • Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage depression or anxiety is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how you feel, or hoping depression or anxiety will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.

Is a structured exercise program the only option?

Some research shows that physical activity such as regular walking — not just formal exercise programs — may help improve mood. Physical activity and exercise are not the same thing, but both are beneficial to your health.

  • Physical activity is any activity that works your muscles and requires energy and can include work or household or leisure activities.
  • Exercise is a planned, structured and repetitive body movement done to improve or maintain physical fitness.

The word "exercise" may make you think of running laps around the gym. But exercise includes a wide range of activities that boost your activity level to help you feel better.

Certainly running, lifting weights, playing basketball and other fitness activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can physical activity such as gardening, washing your car, walking around the block or engaging in other less intense activities. Any physical activity that gets you off the couch and moving can help improve your mood.

You don't have to do all your exercise or other physical activity at once. Broaden how you think of exercise and find ways to add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park a little farther away from work to fit in a short walk. Or, if you live close to your job, consider biking to work.

How much is enough?

Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. But smaller amounts of physical activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — may make a difference. It may take less time exercising to improve your mood when you do more-vigorous activities, such as running or bicycling.

The mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity may last only if you stick with it over the long term — another good reason to focus on finding activities that you enjoy.

How do I get started — and stay motivated?

Starting and sticking with an exercise routine or regular physical activity can be a challenge. These steps can help:

  • Identify what you enjoy doing. Figure out what type of physical activities you're most likely to do, and think about when and how you'd be most likely to follow through. For instance, would you be more likely to do some gardening in the evening, start your day with a jog, or go for a bike ride or play basketball with your children after school? Do what you enjoy to help you stick with it.
  • Get your mental health professional's support. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional for guidance and support. Discuss an exercise program or physical activity routine and how it fits into your overall treatment plan.
  • Set reasonable goals. Your mission doesn't have to be walking for an hour five days a week. Think realistically about what you may be able to do and begin gradually. Tailor your plan to your own needs and abilities rather than setting unrealistic guidelines that you're unlikely to meet.
  • Don't think of exercise or physical activity as a chore. If exercise is just another "should" in your life that you don't think you're living up to, you'll associate it with failure. Rather, look at your exercise or physical activity schedule the same way you look at your therapy sessions or medication — as one of the tools to help you get better.
  • Analyze your barriers. Figure out what's stopping you from being physically active or exercising. If you feel self-conscious, for instance, you may want to exercise at home. If you stick to goals better with a partner, find a friend to work out with or who enjoys the same physical activities that you do. If you don't have money to spend on exercise gear, do something that's cost-free, such as regular walking. If you think about what's stopping you from being physically active or exercising, you can probably find an alternative solution.
  • Prepare for setbacks and obstacles. Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how small. If you skip exercise one day, that doesn't mean you can't maintain an exercise routine and might as well quit. Just try again the next day. Stick with it.

Do I need to see my doctor?

Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program to make sure it's safe for you. Talk to your doctor to find out which activities, how much exercise and what intensity level is OK for you. Your doctor will consider any medications you take and your health conditions. He or she may also have helpful advice about getting started and staying motivated.

If you exercise regularly but depression or anxiety symptoms still interfere with your daily living, see your doctor or mental health professional. Exercise and physical activity are great ways to ease symptoms of depression or anxiety, but they aren't a substitute for talk therapy (psychotherapy) or medications.

Get the latest health information from Mayo Clinic’s experts.

Sign up for free, and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips and current health topics, like COVID-19, plus expertise on managing health.

To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.

Sept. 27, 2017 See more In-depth

See also

  1. MIND diet may cut Alzheimer's risk
  2. Addison's disease
  3. Adjustment disorders
  4. Adrenal fatigue: What causes it?
  5. After a flood, are food and medicines safe to use?
  6. Alzheimer's: New treatments
  7. Alzheimer's 101
  8. Understanding the difference between dementia types
  9. Alzheimer's: Can a head injury increase my risk?
  10. Mediterranean diet
  11. Alzheimer's disease
  12. Alzheimer's disease: Can exercise prevent memory loss?
  13. Alzheimer's drugs
  14. Alzheimer's genes
  15. Alzheimer's nose spray: New Alzheimer's treatment?
  16. Alzheimer's or depression: Could it be both?
  17. Alzheimer's prevention: Does it exist?
  18. Alzheimer's stages
  19. Alzheimer's test: Detection at the earliest stages
  20. Ambien: Is dependence a concern?
  21. Antidepressant withdrawal: Is there such a thing?
  22. Antidepressants and alcohol: What's the concern?
  23. Antidepressants and weight gain: What causes it?
  24. Antidepressants: Can they stop working?
  25. Antidepressants: Side effects
  26. Antidepressants: Selecting one that's right for you
  27. Antidepressants: Which cause the fewest sexual side effects?
  28. Antiphospholipid syndrome
  29. Antidepressants and pregnancy
  30. Atypical antidepressants
  31. Atypical depression
  32. Axona: Medical food to treat Alzheimer's
  33. Back pain
  34. Bedtime routines: Not just for babies
  35. Benefits of being bilingual
  36. Binge-eating disorder
  37. Blood Basics
  38. Borderline personality disorder
  39. Breast-feeding and medications
  40. Dr. Wallace Video
  41. Parathyroid
  42. The role of diet and exercise in preventing Alzheimer's disease
  43. Can music help someone with Alzheimer's?
  44. Can zinc supplements help treat hidradenitis suppurativa?
  45. Can't sleep? Try daytime exercise
  46. Hidradenitis suppurativa wound care
  47. Celiac disease
  48. Celiac disease: Can gluten be absorbed through the skin?
  49. Celiac disease diet: How do I get enough grains?
  50. Chase away the winter blues
  51. Child abuse
  52. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy
  53. CJD - Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease
  54. Clinical depression: What does that mean?
  55. Clinical trials for hidradenitis suppurativa
  56. Coconut oil: Can it cure hypothyroidism?
  57. Coffee after dinner? Make it decaf
  58. Complete blood count (CBC)
  59. Complicated grief
  60. Compulsive sexual behavior
  61. Concussion
  62. Concussion in children
  63. Concussion Recovery
  64. Concussion Telemedicine
  65. Coping with the stress of hidradenitis suppurativa
  66. Coping with the emotional ups and downs of psoriatic arthritis
  67. COVID-19 and your mental health
  68. Creating a hidradenitis suppurativa care team
  69. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  70. Cupping therapy: Can it relieve fibromyalgia pain?
  71. Cushing syndrome
  72. Cyclothymia (cyclothymic disorder)
  73. Delirium
  74. Depression and anxiety: Can I have both?
  75. Depression: Diagnosis is key
  76. Depression during pregnancy
  77. Depression in women: Understanding the gender gap
  78. Depression (major depressive disorder)
  79. Depression: Provide support, encouragement
  80. Depression: Supporting a family member or friend
  81. Diabetes and depression: Coping with the two conditions
  82. Diagnosing Alzheimer's
  83. Dissociative disorders
  84. Vitamin C and mood
  85. Drug addiction (substance use disorder)
  86. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)
  87. Empty nest syndrome
  88. Fatigue
  89. Fibromyalgia
  90. Fibromyalgia and acupuncture
  91. Fibromyalgia: Linked to other health problems?
  92. Fibromyalgia pain: Options for coping
  93. Fibromyalgia: Self-care tips
  94. Fibromyalgia and Neurontin
  95. Fibromyalgia or not?
  96. Folic acid supplements: Can they slow cognitive decline?
  97. Ginkgo biloba: Can it prevent memory loss?
  98. HABIT program orientation
  99. Hangovers
  100. Hashimoto's disease
  101. Headache
  102. Hidradenitis suppurativa
  103. Hidradenitis suppurativa and biologics: Get the facts
  104. Hidradenitis suppurativa and diet: What's recommended?
  105. Hidradenitis suppurativa and sleep: How to get more zzz's
  106. Hidradenitis suppurativa: Tips for weight-loss success
  107. Hidradenitis suppurativa: What is it?
  108. Hidradenitis suppurativa: When does it appear?
  109. Hidradenitis suppurativa: Where can I find support?
  110. How opioid addiction occurs
  111. How to tell if a loved one is abusing opioids
  112. Huperzine A: Can it treat Alzheimer's?
  113. Hyperparathyroidism
  114. Hypoparathyroidism
  115. Hypothyroidism: Can calcium supplements interfere with treatment?
  116. Hypothyroidism diet
  117. Hypothyroidism and joint pain?
  118. Hypothyroidism: Should I take iodine supplements?
  119. Hypothyroidism symptoms: Can hypothyroidism cause eye problems?
  120. Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  121. Insomnia
  122. Insomnia: How do I stay asleep?
  123. Insomnia treatment: Cognitive behavioral therapy instead of sleeping pills
  124. Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction
  125. Is depression a factor in rheumatoid arthritis?
  126. Is fibromyalgia hereditary?
  127. Is the definition of Alzheimer's disease changing?
  128. Kratom for opioid withdrawal
  129. Lack of sleep: Can it make you sick?
  130. Living better with hidradenitis suppurativa
  131. Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  132. Male depression: Understanding the issues
  133. Managing Headaches
  134. Managing hidradenitis suppurativa: Early treatment is crucial
  135. Hidradenitis suppurativa-related health risks
  136. MAOIs and diet: Is it necessary to restrict tyramine?
  137. Marijuana and depression
  138. Mayo Clinic Minute: 3 tips to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease
  139. Mayo Clinic Minute: Alzheimer's disease risk and lifestyle
  140. Mayo Clinic Minute New definition of Alzheimer's changes
  141. Mayo Clinic Minute: Prevent migraines with magnetic stimulation
  142. Mayo Clinic Minute Weathering migraines
  143. Mayo Clinic Minute: Women and Alzheimer's Disease
  144. Medication overuse headaches
  145. Meditation
  146. Mediterranean diet recipes
  147. Memory loss: When to seek help
  148. Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness
  149. Mental health providers: Tips on finding one
  150. Mental health
  151. Mental illness
  152. Migraine
  153. Migraine medications and antidepressants
  154. Migraine treatment: Can antidepressants help?
  155. Infographic: Migraine Treatments: Botox & Nerve Blocking
  156. Migraines and gastrointestinal problems: Is there a link?
  157. Migraines and Vertigo
  158. Migraines: Are they triggered by weather changes?
  159. Alleviating migraine pain
  160. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
  161. Mindfulness exercises
  162. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
  163. Natural remedies for depression: Are they effective?
  164. Nervous breakdown: What does it mean?
  165. New Alzheimers Research
  166. Nicotine dependence
  167. Not tired? Don't go to bed
  168. Occipital nerve stimulation: Effective migraine treatment?
  169. Ocular migraine: When to seek help
  170. Opioids and other drugs: What to watch for
  171. Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  172. Pain and depression: Is there a link?
  173. Pancreatic cancer
  174. Infographic: Pancreatic Cancer: Minimally Invasive Surgery
  175. Pancreatic Cancer Survivor
  176. Infographic: Pancreatic Cancers-Whipple
  177. Perimenopause
  178. Perimenopause birth control options
  179. Pet therapy
  180. Phosphatidylserine supplements: Can they improve memory?
  181. Pituitary tumors
  182. Polymyalgia rheumatica
  183. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
  184. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  185. Prescription drug abuse
  186. Prescription sleeping pills: What's right for you?
  187. Progressive supranuclear palsy
  188. Psychotherapy
  189. Rapidly progressing Alzheimer's: Something else?
  190. Reducing the discomfort of hidradenitis suppurativa: Self-care tips
  191. Salt craving: A symptom of Addison's disease?
  192. Savella may help fatigue
  193. Schizoaffective disorder
  194. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
  195. Choosing a light box
  196. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  197. Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
  198. Skip booze for better sleep
  199. Sleep disorders
  200. Sleep tips
  201. Smoking and rheumatoid arthritis: What's the risk?
  202. Soy: Does it worsen hypothyroidism?
  203. Staying active with hidradenitis suppurativa
  204. Stop your next migraine before it starts
  205. Stress symptoms
  206. Sundowning: Late-day confusion
  207. Support groups
  208. Surgery for hidradenitis suppurativa
  209. Symptom Checker
  210. Tapering off opioids: When and how
  211. Tinnitus and antidepressants
  212. Transcranial magnetic stimulation
  213. Traumatic brain injury
  214. Treating hidradenitis suppurativa: Explore your options
  215. Treating hidradenitis suppurativa with antibiotics and hormones
  216. Treatment-resistant depression
  217. Tricyclic antidepressants and tetracyclic antidepressants
  218. Unexplained weight loss
  219. Vagus nerve stimulation
  220. Valerian: A safe and effective herbal sleep aid?
  221. Vascular dementia
  222. Video: Alzheimer's drug shows early promise
  223. Video: Vagus nerve stimulation
  224. Vitamin B-12 and depression
  225. Vitamin B-12 and Alzheimer's
  226. Vitamin D: Can it prevent Alzheimer's & dementia?
  227. What are opioids and why are they dangerous?
  228. What are the signs and symptoms of hidradenitis suppurativa?
  229. What is reflexology?
  230. Wilson's disease
  231. Wilson's syndrome: An accepted medical diagnosis?
  232. Young-onset Alzheimer's