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 started and keep going, exercise can make a big difference.

Exercise helps prevent and improve many health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Research on depression, anxiety and exercise shows that the mental health and physical benefits of exercise also can help mood get better and lessen anxiety.

The links between depression, anxiety and exercise aren't entirely clear. But working out and other forms of physical activity can ease symptoms of depression or anxiety and make you feel better. Exercise also may 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. Endorphins are natural brain chemicals that can improve your sense of well-being.
  • Taking your mind off worries. Thinking about something else instead of worrying can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety.

Regular exercise has many mental health 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 also can make you feel better about how you look.
  • Get more social interaction. Exercise and physical activity may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just sharing 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 mood improve. Physical activity and exercise are not the same thing, but both are good for your health.

  • Physical activity is any activity that works your muscles and requires energy. Physical activity can include work or household or leisure activities.
  • Exercise is a planned, structured and repetitive body movement. Exercise can help people get physically fit or to stay fit.

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 doing other less intense activities. Any physical activity that gets you off the couch and moving can boost your mood.

You don't have to do all your exercise or other physical activity at one time. Broaden how you think of exercise. 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?

For most healthy adults, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services exercise guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week. Or get at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week. You also can get an equal mix of the two types.

Aim to exercise most days of the week. But even small amounts of physical activity can be helpful. Being active for short periods of time, such as 10 to 15 minutes at a time, throughout the day can add up and have health benefits.

Regular exercise may improve depression or anxiety symptoms enough to make a big difference. That big difference can help kick-start further improvements. The mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity may last only if you stick with them over the long term. That's another good reason to find activities that you enjoy.

How do I get started — and stay with it?

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

  • Find what you enjoy doing. Figure out what type of physical activities you're most likely to do. Then think about when and how you'd be most likely to follow through. For example, 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? Doing what you enjoy can help you stick with it.
  • Get your healthcare professional's support. Talk to your healthcare professional or mental health professional for suggestions and support. Talk about 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. Then begin slowly and build up over time. Make your plan fit your own needs and abilities rather than setting goals that you're not likely 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 think of it as a failure. Instead, look at your exercise or physical activity schedule the same way you look at your therapy sessions or medicine — as one of the tools to help you get better.
  • Think about what keeps you from being successful. Figure out what's stopping you from being physically active or exercising. If you think about what's stopping you, you can probably find a solution. For example, if you feel self-conscious, 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.
  • 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 keep up an exercise routine and might as well quit. Just try again the next day. Stick with it.

Do I need to see my healthcare professional?

Check with your doctor or other healthcare professional before starting a new exercise program to make sure it's safe for you. Talk about which activities, how much exercise and what intensity level is OK for you. Your healthcare professional can consider any medicines you take and your health conditions. You also can get helpful advice about getting started and staying on track.

If you exercise regularly but depression or anxiety symptoms still affect your daily living, see your healthcare professional or mental health professional. Exercise and physical activity are great ways to ease symptoms of depression or anxiety, but they don't replace talk therapy, sometimes called psychotherapy, or medicines.

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Dec. 23, 2023 See more In-depth

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