How exercise can reduce anxiety and depression

Posted 24 June 2022

by Sarah Ashe

We all have different goals when it comes to fitness. Some of us exercise because we want to look better, to create the perfect summer body or shed some pounds for a special event. Some of us want to get stronger and build muscle or are working towards a specific fitness challenge such as a marathon or triathlon.

But how many of us exercise purely for mental health reasons?

Chances are that you, or someone you know, is dealing with anxiety. Being a parent comes with its own stresses and ups and downs, and for so many of us, stress and anxiety is permeating our daily lives more than ever before.

The toll anxiety takes on both the physical and mental body can be high, and people who suffer tend to be more sedentary and avoid exercise. This is sad to hear because doing up your trainers and getting your body moving might well be the best medicine.

It’s backed by research!

It has been proven that people who turn to exercise regularly report a higher quality of life and improved physical and mental health:

  • In a study completed by Netz in 2017 it was concluded that “exercise as a treatment may be as effective as antidepressant medications“(1).
  • In 2016, a study measured the cardiorespiratory fitness of over 1 million participants with no psychiatric diagnosis, as well as assessing them for depressive symptoms. Those with lower fitness levels had a 75% increased risk of depression and those with medium fitness levels only had an increased risk of 23% (2).
  • A study of over 33,000 adults who initially had no symptoms of mental health disorder or physical health problems were followed up over an 11-year period. They concluded that 12% of future cases of depression could have been prevented if all participants took part in at least 1 hour of physical activity a week (3).

So why is exercise so effective?

Endorphins: When we exercise our body releases natural chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine, and can lead you to feel euphoric and positive about life.

A moment of respite: Engaging in exercise also gives you a chance to switch off from the things you feel worried about. The part of your brain that controls anxiety is used while walking, so you can’t walk and be anxious.

Release tension: When you feel extra stressed or anxious do you feel your muscles tighten? Moving your body helps to let go of this muscle tension which, in turn, can remove some anxiety from your system.

Where to start

Find an exercise that you enjoy: It doesn’t have to be a hardcore run, or a sweaty HIIT class. It can be a calming Yoga class, or even a 15 minute walk outside. Exercise looks different for everyone!

Don’t think of exercise as a chore: Try not to make it something that ‘has’ to be done. You might find you’ll come to dread it rather than look forward to it. Make it a happy, fun, enjoyable experience.

Keep going: Studies have shown that if you withdraw from exercise or reduce physical activity then there can be an increase in depressive symptoms and lower mood. Try to make exercise part of your routine, as essential as brushing your teeth!

Moderation is key: Try to move away from the ‘more is more’ mentality and focus on quality over quantity. Find what feels good rather than running your body into the ground. We don’t want to add to already existing stress!

Breathe: Taking deep breaths is free, and it’s amazing! Thanks to our desk culture, our natural breath tends to move in and out of the chest, which initiates the fight or flight response and in turn heightens feelings of stress and anxiety. Taking time to breathe deeper into your belly can help you to feel calmer. Include this in your exercise routine if you can, or visit a Yoga or meditation class.


Go outside
: UK weather isn’t always the most reliable, but if you can take at least 10 minutes outside a day it could help to lift your mood.

(1) Netz Y. Is the Comparison between Exercise and Pharmacologic Treatment of Depression in the Clinical Practice Guideline of the American College of Physicians Evidence-Based. Front Pharmacol. 2017 May 15;8:257. doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00257. eCollection 2017
(2) Schuch FB, Vancampfort D, Sui X, et al: Are lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness associated with incident depression? A systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Prev Med 2016; 93: 159–165
(3) Harvey SB, Overland S, Hatch SL, Wessely S, Mvkletun A, Hotopf M. Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study. Am J Psychiatry 2018 Jan 1;175(1):28-36. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.16111223. Epub 2017 Oct 3.