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Research on anxiety, depression and exercise shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help reduce anxiety and improve mood.

How does exercise help?

Physically it may:

  • Release feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression (neurotransmitters and endorphins)

  • Reduce immune system chemicals that can worsen depression

  • Increase body temperature, which may have calming effects

Emotionally and psychologically it can help you to

  • Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.

  • Take your mind off worries. Exercise can distract you from negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression.

  • Get more social interaction by meeting other people. Even a friendly smile as you walk by can help.

  • Cope in a healthy way. Exercise is doing something positive to manage your anxiety or depression.

What kind of exercise is best?

Exercise is not necessarily running laps around a gym. It can include a lot of different activities that can help to make you feel better. Certainly running, lifting weights, playing basketball and other fitness activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can gardening, washing your car, or strolling around the block and other less intense activities. Anything that gets you off the couch and moving is exercise that can help improve your mood.

How much is enough?

Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week can significantly improve depression symptoms. Smaller amounts of activity (as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time) can make a difference. However, more vigorous activities (such as running or bicycling) may take less time to improve your mood.

How do I get started — and stay motivated?

Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. With medical OK, here are some steps.

  1. Identify what you enjoy. Would you be more likely to do some gardening in the evening? Go for a bike ride or play basketball with your children after school? Do what you enjoy to help you stick with it.

  2. Get your mental health provider's support. Talk to your doctor or other mental health provider for guidance and support about how an exercise program fits into your overall treatment plan.

  3. Set reasonable goals. Be reasonable about what you may be able to do. Let your plan fit your own needs and abilities rather than trying to meet unrealistic guidelines that you're unlikely to meet or keep.

  4. Try not to look at exercise as a chore. If exercise is just another "should do" in your life, you'll connect it with failure. View your exercise schedule the same way as your therapy sessions or medication — as one of the tools to help you get better.

  5. Address your barriers. Figure out what's stopping you from exercising. If you feel self-conscious, consider exercising at home. Find a friend to work out with. Do something that's virtually cost-free, such as walking. If you think about what's stopping you from exercising, you can probably find an option that works for you.

  6. Be prepared for setbacks and obstacles. Praise yourself for every step in the right direction, no matter how small. If you skip one day, that doesn't mean you may as well quit. Just try again the next day.

Do I need to see my doctor?

Talk with your health care provider to get medical advice. S/he will take into account your medications and health conditions and may have some good advice about getting started and staying motivated.

If you exercise regularly but anxiety or depression symptoms still interfere with your daily living, check with your doctor or other mental health provider. Although exercise is a great way to ease symptoms of anxiety or depression, it can’t take the place of psychotherapy or medications.

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