Beating anxiety isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing battle that requires planning, strategy, and a versatile toolkit that you should be able to deploy at any time.
While feelings of tension and discomfort might be hard to outsmart, there are plenty of methods you can use to overcome them. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to manage anxiety. The best part? You don’t need to be a pro athlete to reap the benefits.
In this article, we’re shedding light on the wonders of exercise to manage anxiety and fend off negativity. These tips are practical, easy to implement, and in some cases, you won’t even need to break a swear. Let’s explore the best anxiety-reducing exercises and talk about how to stay consistent in your routine.
Why is exercise important for anxiety management?
We all know that exercise keeps us fit and healthy and boosts our overall well-being — but you may not be aware of the connection between exercise and anxiety management, especially if you’re new to either topic.
Here are some of the key benefits you can expect from a regular exercise routine, whether you’re well-versed in anxiety management or just getting started.
The most immediate and noticeable benefits of exercise impact the physiological body first. It doesn’t matter if you take a brisk walk or push yourself to the limit in the weight room — the human body works best when in motion.
Just a few minutes into an exercise session, you’ll notice the rush of endorphins in your bloodstream, commonly known as the “runner’s high” effect. These natural chemicals boost your mood, uplift your optimism, and flood your system with good feelings. It’s no wonder why people who get into exercise don’t want to miss a session in the gym, at the yoga studio, or on the hiking trail.
In addition to endorphin release, exercise reduces stress hormones like cortisol, which are thought to contribute to feelings of anxiety and unease. This combo effect of increased endorphins and reduced cortisol is the one-two punch you need to navigate an anxious episode.
Finally, frequent exercise exhausts the body — in a good way. You won’t have much energy left over at the end of the day, meaning you’ll crawl into bed feeling ready for a good night’s sleep. Your anxiety levels will naturally be lower when you put your energy towards physical activity. As a result, you’ll reap the benefits of better sleep and proper rejuvenation each night.
The benefits of exercise go beyond the body and positively impact your mental health as well. When you exercise regularly, you experience an increase in self-confidence as you see the physical results of your efforts and earn a better self-image.
Additionally, exercise provides time to distract yourself from anxious thoughts that may arise at inopportune times. You’re completely “in the moment” when you exercise, meaning that anxious feelings and negative self-talk are less likely to creep in. Sometimes, you just need a moment of separation from your thoughts to gain perspective and overcome roadblocks.
As for endorphins and hormone regulation, the effects of exercise can last for hours after your workout. In other words, your mood will remain heightened even after you hit the showers and get back to your task list. Stay consistent with your routine, and the mental benefits of exercise will permeate throughout every area of your life.
Which exercises can help reduce feelings of anxiety?
You’ve got plenty of reasons to start your exercise routine, but what is the best way to begin? It’s time to list some exercises to add to your daily routine to help keep anxiety symptoms at bay.
1. Deep breathing techniques
The first exercise on our list doesn’t require gym shoes or even going outside. All you need is a moment of silence as you bring your attention to your breath. Inhale deeply through the nose, hold at the “top” of your breath for a few seconds, then slowly exhale through the mouth.
As you calm yourself down with steady breathing, try to deepen each breath by expanding your belly with each inhalation. You can pair this simple exercise with meditation and affirmations to help combat anxiety and return to your to-do list feeling refreshed.
The human body is built to walk, yet we spend more time than ever sitting down. Even a five-minute stroll through your neighborhood can uplift your mood and reduce stress hormones like cortisol. The combination of low-impact aerobic exercise, movement, and fresh air can work wonders to limit the effects of anxious thinking.
Don’t underestimate the power of a good walk, even if it means taking a few minutes away from your workday.
Yoga is an ancient practice that aligns the body, mind, and spirit through poses and breathing. The good news is that you don’t need a complex yoga routine to get the benefits of relaxation and realignment.
If anxiety arises, start with a simple “Child’s Pose” (Balasana) or “Corpse Pose” (Savasana) to slow your heart rate and take back control of your thoughts. Try a “Standing Forward Bend” (Uttanasana) to restore blood flow to the brain and maybe incorporate a Pigeon Pose to loosen the hips and lower back.
Just a brief yoga routine can unblock restricted energy in the body and get you back in the flow of things — without anxious thoughts.
4. Tai chi
Tai chi is another Eastern exercise practice combining focus, intention, and gentle, flowing movements. These simple routines can help ground you at moments when you feel stuck in your head or overwhelmed with emotion.
Follow along with a beginner Tai Chi routine online or freestyle with a range of motions involving pulling, pushing, and moving your hands in circular motions. It’s all about finding a comfortable and invigorating flow that restores your sense of balance and security.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a body of water or have access to a pool, swimming is one of the best forms of aerobic exercise available. It’s a whole-body, low-impact form of exercise that requires precision and presence, all with a powerful endorphin boost from cardiovascular effort.
The refreshing water and the cardio boost will help your body and mind break out of a slump at any time of the day. Swimming can also help with your weight loss journey and help you overcome social anxiety — why not dive in?
Another low-impact exercise favorite, cycling can quickly boost your heart rate and get those endorphins pumping. Cycling outdoors is a great way to get fresh air and enjoy the scenery, but a stationary bike can also do the trick when you’re looking to break a sweat.
Better yet, sign up for a spin class to push your cardio capacity and enjoy the energy of a group workout environment. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish with the guidance of an inspiring instructor and a group of motivated classmates.
7. Progressive muscle relaxation
You may not always have time to get to the gym or dedicate a full hour to a cardio session. In these cases, progressive muscle relaxation can get you out of a jam in any situation.
Start this technique by focusing on the toes and feet, tensing and relaxing the muscles one at a time. Work your way up the legs, through the torso, out through the arms, then finish with the neck, shoulders, and face.
It’s a powerful and subtle way to reset your body and give the mind a fresh start at any point in your daily routine.
Dancing is a legitimate form of exercise in our book, so why not add it to your arsenal of anti-anxiety tools? Not only does dancing circulate energy and oxygen throughout the body, but it also removes the mental barriers that come with self-judgment and fear.
Blast some music on your headphones, feel the beat, and release some pent-up energy when you feel a wave of anxiety. No matter where you are, dance like nobody’s watching.
9. Jump rope
Don’t be intimidated by training montages featuring high-intensity jump rope techniques. You can use this simple tool to boost your heart rate in just a few minutes and achieve a rapid endorphin boost. Feel free to go at your own pace and test different techniques with increasing difficulty.
Jump rope can be done anywhere, from the park to the parking lot. This makes it a versatile workout technique to employ throughout your daily journey.
Pilates is often discussed as a yoga alternative, but it’s a unique form of exercise focusing on core strength, conditioning, and proper posture. Techniques include plans, leg circles, and roll-ups, typically done while lying on your back.
These methods are easy to learn yet hard to master, but you’ll see significant progress with consistent practice each day. Just keep in mind that pilates is meant to invigorate the body rather than relax it.
11. Boxing or punching bag workouts
Ready to unleash some of that aggression in a healthy way? Martial arts workouts, including boxing, are the perfect outlet for your intensity and pent-up energy.
Anxiety is simply a form of energy, and it needs a way out! Take a boxing class or just pound on the heavy bag at your local gym — you just might feel a whole lot better.
How can you stay motivated and consistent?
A single exercise session usually isn’t that hard. The real challenge is sticking with your program for the long haul and building up your defenses against anxiety.
The best way to stay motivated is to set smart goals that ensure you look forward to your workouts every day. Without something to strive for, you risk falling back into old patterns of behavior. Additionally, try keeping a journal or teaming up with a workout partner who can hold you accountable. Don’t forget to celebrate small wins and keep that momentum going!
You won’t feel eager to work out every single day, and that’s normal. As long as you remember the big picture and keep things fresh with new routines, you’ll stay on the right track.
On the other hand, be sure to seek out medical advice from a licensed mental health professional if you encounter more serious health problems or panic attacks. Exercise is not the cure-all, but rather one tool in your arsenal.
From breathing exercises to Tai Chi and good old-fashioned cardio, you’ve got so many types of exercises to help in the quest against anxiety. Your physical health is paramount, but don’t forget the mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits of a solid exercise program.
Whether you’re seeking natural anxiety relief or just need to calm the nervous system for a few minutes, there’s always a workout that fits the moment.