When I first started dealing with panic attacks and anxiety, I immersed myself in learning every topic of psychology I could get my hands on. Ironically, one of the best methods I found for improving my mental health was something I already knew about… physical exercise. So, how can we exercise for anxiety and panic attack prevention?
Physical exercise can be a highly effective way to decrease the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. Exercises that involve at least 10-30 minutes of increased heart rate tend to be ideal for anxiety benefits. Studies show that both aerobic and anaerobic exercises can be effective.
You probably still have some questions about the exact benefits of exercise for anxiety and panic attacks, as well as the best way to exercise to maximize mental benefits.
Keep reading and I’ll answer all those questions and more!
My Background in Exercise Science
Fun fact about myself… I spent my sophomore year of college studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia. The university I studied at there actually specialized in “Sport and Exercise Science” – something I had absolutely never heard of before. Naturally, I enrolled in several interesting classes like "Resistance Training" and “Exercise Psychology.”
In these classes, I personally participated in several studies (I was a lab rat, basically) that aimed to examine the effects of various forms of exercise on mood. While I absolutely hated being tricked into sweating first thing in the morning, I definitely noticed the drills were having a positive impact on my mood afterward.
Taking these classes and participating in these studies definitely piqued my interest and drove me to learn much more about exercise psychology on my own time; Specifically, I took an interest in how to exercise for anxiety and panic attack prevention. The rest of this article will focus on exactly what I’ve learned over the years, and how others might benefit from incorporating exercise into their own anxiety treatment plan.
2 Reasons We Overlook Exercise for Anxiety Prevention
I know what you’re thinking. Exercise for anxiety? Sure, exercise helps people lose and weight and build muscle... but there’s no way I could reduce anxiety with exercise!
This is a very common and tragic misconception.
Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to help prevent anxiety and panic attacks.
Sadly, we collectively overlook exercise for anxiety due, in large part, to these flaws in our current medical model:
- We forget the mind-body connection: the mind and body are a singular entity.
- The “there’s a pill for that mentality” / medicinal treatment instead of prevention
The belief that the mind and body are two separate entities is an entirely outdated notion. We know today, with certainty, that the mind and body are strongly linked to one another.
What happens to the mind affects the body. What happens to the body affects the mind.
Unfortunately, our medical model is often slow to adapt, with many well-meaning doctors and professors perpetuating outdated information from ages past.
To make matters worse, our medical model tends to lead with, “there’s a pill for that.” Oftentimes individuals are prescribed medication to quickly mask their issues, rather than a more conservative and sustainable treatment plan that focuses on prevention. Perhaps, at times, it is simply easier or more profitable to write a prescription than it would be to investigate the root cause of a disease or mental health issue.
For obvious reasons, this is often not the ideal approach.
Many anxiety medications are just variations of naturally occurring chemicals and neurotransmitters. If your anxiety were caused by a chemical imbalance, wouldn’t you prefer trying to correct this imbalance through healthy lifestyle changes, rather than relying on an addictive chemical that causes further imbalances over time?
For some people, exercise could serve as a much healthier and more sustainable method of reducing or preventing symptoms of anxiety.
But could a 10-minute jog be all it takes to help you beat anxiety attacks?
Let’s find out.
Homo Sapiens: The Sedentary Ape?
Several hundred thousand years ago our species, homo sapiens, was born.
That’s right, we’ve got a 200,000-year-old brain in our heads.
We’re always wondering why rates of depression and anxiety are so high, yet always overlooking this fact.
If you were to bring a caveman from several hundred thousand years ago forward in time, to NYC today, you better believe he’d have a panic attack.
There is nothing natural about the way we live; we simply did not evolve for this. We are able to tolerate it most of the time only because we grew up around it all and are mostly desensitized.
This “caveman brain” of ours worked in sync with our body to keep us alive at all costs.
And, back then, “staying alive” meant physical activity!
In fact, forget the caveman! As recently as a century ago our survival was immediately dependent upon physical activity.
If the caveman did not successfully hunt down or gather a meal, he starved.
If the early 1900s man did not labor hard enough to earn a meal, he starved.
Today, due to modernization, automation, and globalization, most of us do not have to physically labor for our food. In fact, many jobs today involve little to no physical labor at all.
On many counts, this is great news, as it allows us to focus our efforts elsewhere.
The major downside, however, is that we are the first few generations of humans who are not physically working. As a result, we never get the opportunity to burn off excess energy. We never get our blood pumping and our brains releasing the chemicals essential to our mental health.
While it may feel like we are working 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, for many of us it’s an illusion.
Take a desk job, for example. You may be typing away feverishly at your computer, but essentially you are just sitting and staring at a screen. Your body is not being worked the way nature intended.
If you were to observe any other animal sitting in its cage staring at a wall for 8 hours per day, what would you think?
You’d probably think that the animal must be very sick!
Perhaps that the animal has severe anxiety or depression…?
Do you see where I’m going with this?
You need to exercise.
The Psychological Benefits of Exercise
There are just as many, if not more, psychological benefits of exercise as there are physical benefits. These benefits of exercise are particularly significant for sufferers of anxiety and depression.
It is a well-documented fact that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people.
As mentioned earlier, the mind-body connection is extremely powerful. Take care of the body and the mind follows. Neglect the body and the mind also follows.
Here is an overview of some of the benefits of exercise according to psychologists:
4 Ways Exercise Can Help with Anxiety
Physical exercise for anxiety prevention can help us in more ways than one. In fact, it’s difficult to keep track of all the different things going on at once inside our brain and the rest of our body when we exercise. There are a few ways, however, in which exercise can be seen playing a major role in helping to increase mood and decrease feelings of anxiety. These ways include:
- Changes in our brain chemistry – Probably the most obvious way that exercise can help us with anxiety is through the direct and immediate changes taking place in our brain when we exercise. As we mentioned in the previous section, exercise can help increase the availability of anti-anxiety chemicals such as serotonin, BDNF, GABA, and endocannabinoids in the brain. It can also lower cortisol in the long-term. Changes in the natural levels of these chemicals can help to immediately improve our mood and decrease anxiety.
- Decreases muscle tension – If you’ve read our article on meditation, you’ll know about tense-and-release exercises and how we can use them to release muscle tension. Well, genuine physical exercise works in pretty much the same way. While exercising we are stimulating our muscles, which helps to release any tension that may have built up in them over time due to stress. While this may seem like more of a physical benefit than a psychological one, it’s important to remember that our mind takes cues from our body. So, by relieving muscle tension though exercise, we’re actually signaling to the brain that it’s okay to relax and release some mental tension as well.
- Serves as a focus object – Any time we talk about how to stop a panic attack on this website, you’ll almost always see some way in which we are diverting our attention. Basically, when an anxiety attack starts to get bad, we have a tendency to hone in on those negative thoughts. We have a really hard time pulling ourselves out of the rabbit hole that is anxiety until it is too late and we’ve entered full-blown panic mode. One simple way in which exercise helps with anxiety is by serving as a focus object of its own for us. In other words, we naturally become so engaged in the act of exercise, we forget all about our anxiety.
- Works as a form of exposure – Another massive benefit of exercise for anxiety, specifically for those with panic attacks, is its use as a form of exposure. Basically, when we have recurrent anxiety or panic attacks, many of us slowly learn to fear the physiological symptoms of anxiety (increased heart rate, rapid breathing, etc.). Exercise forces us to address those uncomfortable symptoms head-on. Over time and through repeated practice, we eventually learn to stop associated those symptoms with panic, and start to see them for the harmless feelings that they are. We'll dive further into this method in the next section.
How Exercise Can Help with Panic Attacks
Exercising for anxiety, in general, is extremely effective.
Exercising for panic attacks, however, has a very unique benefit of its own.
People with panic disorder have essentially developed a fear of their own brain’s fear response.
When the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is activated, your heart rate and breathing increase as you prepare to fight or flee from danger.
During a panic attack, your fear of those sensations is causing your anxiety to escalate further.
Exercise causes the body to go through many of the same changes as a panic attack; Increased heart rate, heavy breathing, sweating, dilated pupils, hyper-focus, etc.
Elsewhere on the site, we discuss exposure therapy: exposing someone to a small, controlled stimulus that represents their fear. Through repeated exposure to their fear, in a controlled environment, a person can eventually learn that they have nothing to fear after all.
For panic disorder, exercise can serve as this controlled stimulus.
While exercising, your heart rate and breathing can be increased without panic.
Over time, your brain can learn that the physical symptoms of an increased heart rate and breathing are not something to fear.
In other words, for many people, exercise could potentially work as a form of exposure to the fight-or-flight stimulus.
In my own experience, I’ve found that exercise works wonders at treating panic disorder for this reason. I’d highly recommend exercise as a method of decreasing panic attack symptoms long-term.
3 Tips to Maximize the Anti-Anxiety Benefits of Exercise
When you exercise for anxiety reduction or panic attack prevention, there are a few things you might want to consider doing to potentially maximize the benefits. These tips are by no means necessary to derive anxiety benefits from exercise, so if you have a strong preference to exercise a different way – by all means, exercise however you prefer. But, if it’s all the same to you, these tips can help you to get the most out of each session.
1. Choose the Right Exercise for You
One factor you’ll have to immediately consider before exercising is exactly what kind of exercise you’ll be engaging in. Whatever you decide on, you should be exercising for at least 10-30 minutes to get the maximum anxiety-reduction benefits. It’s important that you choose an exercise that you’ll be able to stick with, since the main benefits of exercise are compounded long-term. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box; you don’t have to stick to traditional exercises, you can find a creative new hobby (my mom took up country line dancing, for example, and she loves it). Just make sure that whatever you choose will have your heart pumping faster for those 10-30 minutes or more, or you’ll miss out on the benefits.
You may also be wondering whether an aerobic or anaerobic exercise is better for anxiety. While research is limited here, studies tend to indicate that both aerobic and anaerobic are effective at decreasing anxiety long-term. The main difference is that aerobic exercise tends to work better at reducing acute anxiety immediately, whereas anaerobic exercise can actually make some people feel more anxious in the short-term (likely due to high exertion levels). This could, however, make anerobic exercise valuable as a form of exposure to the symptoms of anxiety. Either way, if you are exercising regularly, both should be effective at decreasing anxiety in the long-term; so just choose whichever exercise you enjoy most.
2. Find a Workout Partner(s)
The key to making exercise actually work for you is to find a way to be consistent with it in the long-run. In my own experience, the easiest way to do this is to find a regular workout partner who can match your ambition level and hold you accountable to your goals. It’s much more difficult to skip out of going to the gym when you know you’ll not just be letting down yourself, but also your workout partner.
Even better is if you manage to build a group of friends that you can work out with on a regular basis. Turning your exercise into a social activity can be a great way to further decrease anxiety while passing the time with your friends. Even better, if you specifically suffer from social anxiety, this is a great way to keep yourself from getting “socially rusty” or isolating yourself over time. If you don’t already have a group of friends that are willing to exercise with you, it’s easy enough to find a group to join just by searching the Internet or social media for local groups dedicated to whatever activity you’re interested in.
3. Exercise Outdoors When Possible
Interestingly enough, there are a number of studies that show significant anxiety-reduction benefits to “green exercises,” or exercises that take place in natural environments. While any type of outdoor exercises are probably going to be more ideal than their indoor counterparts, it seems as though greater stress relief is reported when the exercise location feels more "green". In other words, a jog through a forest may be better at reducing your anxiety than a jog along a sidewalk. Of course, many exercises may be difficult or even impossible to replicate in a natural environment; don’t feel as though you absolutely need to be exercising outdoors – you don’t. However, if you can find a reasonable way to break a sweat somewhere a little bit “greener” or more “forest-y” than your local gym… it may be worth trying it out from time to time!
Fun Fact: Arnold Schwarzenegger actually started his bodybuilding career by exercising with his friends in the forests of Austria. Obviously, this is not the way that everyone is going to do things… but it’s certainly a testament to the efficacy of finding an exercise you love and training with friends in a natural setting!
Exercising for Anxiety: How to Get Started
When we discuss exercising for anxiety, anything that gets your blood pumping will do the trick, so don’t be afraid to get creative. Lifting weights, going for a hike, playing sports, doing gymnastics, or even pushing a lawnmower could all work. You don’t necessarily have to just “go for a run.”
Many exercises can even double as being “meditative” for added benefits if they involve repetitive motions like running or lifting weights.
Now, we’ve all heard of “runner’s high,” but you don’t need to run for dozens of miles to experience psychological benefits.
10-30 minutes of moderate exercise is typically enough to decrease anxiety and boost mood temporarily. With regular exercise over time, these benefits can become long-lasting and permanent.
So, remember, the two keys are:
- Elevated heart rate and breathing
- Duration of at least 10-30 minutes
If you’re an athlete or already used to physical exercise, by all means, feel free to exercise for longer. Longer exercise duration is fine, but anti-anxiety benefits don’t significantly increase after 30 minutes.
If you’re just starting out and leaving a sedentary lifestyle, don’t push yourself too hard. Studies show that when people exercise above their respiratory threshold (above the point when it gets hard to talk) they delay exercise’s “mood boost” benefit by about half an hour. For this reason, novices who push themselves too hard initially often burn themselves out and fail to maintain the habit.
Some tips for getting started:
- Start slow. Don’t push yourself too hard at first or you will burn out.
- Consistency is more important than getting the “perfect” workout every time; Even if you’re pressed for time, try and squeeze in at least 5 minutes per day.
- Find an activity you enjoy. Exercise doesn’t have to be a drag. If running or lifting weights isn’t for you, maybe try dancing, hiking, or martial arts. Get creative!
- Find the right environment. Are you introverted or extroverted? Figure out how you exercise best. Do you thrive in group settings/classes? Prefer one regular workout partner? Or do you do your best when you’re flying solo?
- Listen to music. Music can boast a whole list of anti-anxiety benefits and psychological advantages in and of itself. Listen to some music or a podcast if it helps you to get in the zone or be more productive.
- Don’t expect immediate results. There’s a reason the gyms are full in January and empty by February. People set their expectations too high and become defeated when they can’t immediately see results. Be patient, and keep at it. Your body and mind are improving, I promise.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to exercise for anxiety. I definitely can’t give you direction for every one of these methods, but I can help you find the best equipment for getting started with the most basic and common exercises. Here’s some equipment to get you started from home:
Resistance Bands – This is pretty much the bare minimum needed for resistance training. Personally, this is my least favorite way to work out. However, it’s extremely cheap to buy a set of resistance bands, and it’s super easy to take them on the go, unlike pretty much all other equipment options. If you’re just starting out or have a limited budget, this is a fine start. Eventually, however, you’ll probably prefer to graduate to dumbbells.
Running Shoes – You’ve probably already got a pair you can dig up in your closet. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. If you go the running/jogging/cardio route, it’s literally free to get started… plus the cost of a decent pair of running shoes, of course.
For Intermediate Exercisers:
Adjustable Dumbbells – If you’re like most people and don’t have space in your house for a home gym, adjustable dumbbells are the obvious choice. Just about any exercise that you'd do at the gym can be done with dumbbells if you know how to use them. I recommend a pair like these for beginners because the weight can be adjusted quickly as opposed to the older style where the weight had to be adjusted manually (those are a nightmare to use, trust me).
Fitbit – If you’re going the cardio route, this is a pretty intuitive purchase that a lot of runners wind up buying down the road. It’s just a good way to stay on course and keep track of your progress (miles ran, calories burnt, heart rate, etc.). It’s by no means necessary for any exercise, but you may enjoy having one if you’ve been exercising for a while now.
For Advanced Exercisers:
Complete Set of Dumbbells – Now, this isn’t going to be for everyone… but, if you do have a bit more space for more of a home gym type situation, a full dumbbell rack is the way to go. It’s the fastest and easiest option to quickly switch between weights during high-intensity exercises. If you get something like this, you don’t need the adjustable dumbbells at all. However, you really need to have the space and budget for it.
Adjustable Bench – Again, if space allows, this is a great piece of equipment to have. If space is limited, skip it. An adjustable bench + dumbbells = cancel your gym membership. Seriously, an adjustable bench and dumbbells will allow you to target any muscle group you want; at this point, a gym membership really isn’t even necessary.
Indoor Exercise Bike – To be perfectly transparent and clear, I do not own (nor have I ever owned) an indoor exercise bike. I just think they look extremely cool and fun, and if I’m going to watch TV, I’d much rather be getting some exercise while I do it. Like I said, I have never owned one of these (I have no space for it) but if you have the budget and some space in your house for it, I’ll live vicariously through you.