A Workout For Your Body Can Rest Your Mind

Implementing an Exercise Plan to Calm Anxiety

kupicoo/E+ Collection/Getty Images

The list of symptoms associated with anxiety – persistent, uncontrollable worry, sleep disturbance, stomachaches, and muscle tension – is long and varied.  Anxiety can lead to avoidance, result in relationship problems, and detract from our ability to enjoy important life moments.

Research indicates that at least two types of treatment can be helpful for anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder: cognitive behavioral therapy and medication treatment.

Unfortunately, no one approach works equally well for every person. However, progress is being made to identify other treatment choices that can be used either on their own or in conjunction with more established approaches. For example, there is increasing evidence that a regular mindfulness practice and/or exercise routine may be a valuable part of a treatment plan for clinical anxiety disorders and garden-variety worry.

If you are feeling anxious, the good news is that you will not have to wait weeks on end to feel the positive effects of exercise. Improvements in anxiety are actually possible within minutes of completing a workout.

How can you set yourself up for success with an exercise routine?

Make a Concrete Plan

  • What fits well into your schedule? Which activities are most easily accessed?

Remember, gentle forms of exercise can be just as beneficial as a high intensity workout to help with your anxiety. 

Anticipate Setbacks

Behavior change is never easy, and it’s often hampered by thoughts and feelings. 

Biased thinking – such as “I’ll never be able to get back into good shape” or “It’s not worth it to exercise for just 10 minutes a day” – can impede progress.

Try not to accept these beliefs as facts, but rather to challenge them. Ask yourself what you would tell a friend who expressed such thoughts.

Feeling stressed, depressed, or on edge can also become a reason to put exercise off for one day…and then another. Consider, instead of letting your emotions dictate your actions, acting first and observing the feeling that follows. You just might notice that exercise takes the edge off, lifts your mood, or distracts you temporarily from your stress.

Track Your Progress

Evaluating your progress will reinforce the use of exercise to enhance wellbeing. Monitoring is also a means to reflect on what types of activity are most enjoyable to you, most practical for your schedule, and most beneficial in terms of your mood and anxiety. Smartphone fitness apps can used to monitor the when and what of your new exercise routine; or, try a simple handwritten log to track your mood and/or anxiety level prior to and following your workout.

If you struggle with commonly experienced physical manifestations of anxiety, at the end of each workout ask yourself:

  • What physical sensations did I experience during exercise today?
  • What worries did I have about these sensations in the moment?
  • What do I want to tell myself about these feelings now?

Use what you learn from your tracking to build on what’s working and change what’s not.


Physical activity guidelines are available through the US Department of Health and Human Services as well as The American College of Sports Medicine.

Additional resources related to fitness and healthy lifestyle choices can be found on the National Health & Exercise Science Association website and on http://www.fitness.gov, the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, & Nutrition website.


Otto, MW, Smits, JAJ. Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Continue Reading