How exercise can help manage stress, anxiety and depression

Physical activity can relieve stress and can also improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Experts believe it does this by both promoting resilience and giving a person a break from stress, thereby improving their mood.

Although researchers know that exercise can improve symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, they don’t really understand why. It’s unclear exactly how exercise boosts mood and promotes calm, but they have theories about its effects.

Some proof indicates that exercise increases resilience, which makes a person more equipped to deal with difficult situations.

Exercise recommendations for stress reduction are the same as for general health promotion: 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. Brisk walking, jogging and cycling are examples of this type of exercise.

Read on to learn more about how exercise can improve mood, exercises to try, risks involved, and more.

Researchers are studying the mechanisms linking exercise and stress. There are two main theories:

Increases emotional resilience to stress

One explanation says exercise can increase emotional resilience to stress.

In a 2014 study, the researchers looked at 111 participants and compared the effects of a stressful task to those of a non-stressful task. They also analyzed the differences between people who exercised regularly and sedentary people.

The results indicated that stress caused a smaller drop in positive mood in regular exercisers. Sedentary individuals experienced a greater decline in mood. This suggests that regular exercise can increase resilience, helping people cope with difficult situations.

However, it is important to note that the study did not show a direct causal link between stress levels and exercise. Other factors are likely at play – for example, someone with a chronic health condition that requires them to be sedentary may have higher stress levels overall.

Despite this, lower stress levels can mean a person is less likely to experience certain health problems. An older research from 2013 notes that 75–90% visits to a primary care physician are for stress-related conditions, such as:

Gives a person a break from stress

Another theory is called the “dead time” hypothesis. This posits that exercise reduces stress by providing a break. For example, a person can reduce their stress level at work by taking a brisk walk on their lunch break.

Researchers in a former 1998 study tested the time-out hypothesis in a small group of anxious women and found that exercise caused lower levels of anxiety.

A study 2021 high school students had similar results. Researchers found that a 10-minute break during a stressful exam week reduced stress levels and improved cognitive function.

Many studies of exercise for stress relief focus on aerobic activity. That doesn’t mean other types of exercise, like strength training, aren’t effective — they’re just less studied.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)people should aim to do 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

People who suffer from work-related stress may wish to break up their daily exercise into shorter sessions. They can do them before work, during a lunch break or after work.

Many physical activities fall into the category of aerobic exercise, but the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests a brisk walk. A person can choose another activity they like, such as:

  • swim
  • dancing
  • gardening
  • ride a bike

Researchers have studied how exercise can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.


The authors of a 2020 review reviewed research that explored the effects of exercise on anxiety. They found that physical activity can significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety, and they noted that it can also reduce symptoms of other mental health conditions.

The authors said exercise can help treat anxiety disorders through a wide range of benefits.


In a 2018 reportthe researchers looked at studies looking at the effects of exercise on depression.

They found that for some people, physical activity can be just as effective as other first-line treatments for depression. Additionally, the physical health benefits of exercise can improve overall well-being.

Although exercise is not an appropriate substitute for treatments such as medication and therapy for many people, it can be a useful addition to an existing treatment plan.

According to US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the evidence strongly indicates that exercise is safe for most people. Although it does not usually cause problems, it does have the following risks:

To exercise safely, HHS recommends:

  • Choose physical activities appropriate to a person’s fitness level. Activities such as walking, gardening and stationary cycling have low injury rates, while running and contact sports have higher injury rates.
  • Start slow then gradually increase the intensity and duration. A person is more likely to get injured if they start doing too much intense exercise too quickly. They should gradually increase the duration and intensity, and they may find it helpful to speak to a doctor or personal trainer for advice.
  • Use of appropriate sports equipment and equipment. For some activities, the use of equipment such as a helmet and goggles can help prevent injury. People need to make sure their gear fits properly.
  • Choose safe environments. If a person lives in a hot climate, they may want to exercise early in the morning or in the evening to avoid the highest temperatures of the day. People can also stay safe by avoiding high traffic areas.

People who are new to exercise may want to contact a doctor before beginning a workout routine. This is especially important if they have pre-existing health conditions.

A doctor can provide advice on the amount and type of exercise that is appropriate. Also, if a person experiences ongoing pain or injury, they should contact a doctor.

Researchers hypothesize that exercise can reduce stress levels and improve symptoms of depression and anxiety by promoting resilience and giving people a break from stress.

People can try short bursts of exercise while working or studying. the CDC recommends people get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week.

Although the HHS note that physical activity is safe for most people, there are some risks. If a person is new to exercising or has any pre-existing health conditions, they should contact a doctor before beginning a new exercise plan.

About Shirley A. Tamayo

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