Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University Published June 12, 2021
Exercise improves clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression
Researchers also have examined the effects of exercise on measurable brain function and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercise improves memory function, cognitive performance, and academic achievement. Studies also suggest regular exercise has a moderate effect on depressive symptoms even comparable to psychotherapy. For anxiety disorders, this effect is mild to moderate in reducing anxiety symptoms. In a study that I conducted with others among refugee children, we found a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and PTSD among children who attended eight to 12 weeks of dance and movement therapies.
Exercise could even potentially desensitize people to physical symptoms of anxiety. That is because of the similarity between bodily effects of exercise, specifically high-intensity exercise, and those of anxiety, including shortness of breath, heart palpitation, and chest tightness. Also, by reducing baseline heart rate, exercise might lead to signaling of a calmer internal physical environment to the brain.
It is important to note that the majority of studies examined the effects of exercise in isolation and not in combination with other effective treatments of clinical anxiety and depression, such as psychotherapy and medication. For the same reason, I am not suggesting exercise as a replacement for necessary mental healthcare of depression or anxiety, but as part of it, and for prevention.
There are other perks besides the neurobiological impacts of exercise. When going out for a walk, one gets more exposure to sunlight, fresh air, and nature. One of my patients befriended a neighbor during her regular walks, leading to regular taco Tuesdays with that new friend. I have made some great friends at my boxing gym, who are not only my motivators, but also a great supporting social network. One might pick a dog as their running mate, and another might meet a new date, or enjoy the high energy at the gym. Exercise can also function as a mindfulness practice and a respite from common daily stressors, and from our electronic devices and TV.
By increasing energy and fitness level, exercise can also improve self-image and self-esteem .
Practical ways for a busy life
So how can you find time to exercise, especially with all the additional time demands of the pandemic, and the limitations imposed by the pandemic such as limited access to the gyms?