Exercise May Be An Important OCD Self-Help Strategy

Exercise May Reduce OCD Symptoms

Exercise can help relieve OCD symptoms.
Exercise can help relieve OCD symptoms. Cultura RM Exclusive/Edwin Jimenez/Getty Images

Most of us are familiar with the many physical benefits of aerobic exercise , including reduced cholesterol levels and lowered risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, there is now plenty of evidence that exercise may be an important self-help strategy for reducing symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Studies Done on the Effects of Exercise on OCD

It is now known that aerobic exercise can be used therapeutically to improve mild to moderate symptoms of depression, as well as reduce overall stress and anxiety levels.

One study from 2007 examined whether aerobic exercise is helpful in reducing the severity of OCD symptoms. In these studies, participants continued with their usual treatment but added moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as running, to their treatment regimen for 12 weeks.

Researchers found that the severity and frequency of OCD symptoms were reduced immediately following the exercise. In addition, the overall severity and frequency of OCD symptoms generally decreased over the 12 weeks of exercise therapy. For some participants, these gains were still present six months after the exercise intervention.

Another study published in 2015 did a similar test to see if a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and a customized 12-week exercise program tailored to each individual made any difference in the group members' OCD symptoms. The exercise clearly helped, leading the researchers to the conclusion that a 12-week exercise program along with CBT is a good therapeutic recommendation for OCD sufferers.

How Exercise Helps Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Symptoms

There are a number of ways in which exercise might help to reduce symptoms of OCD:

  • Exercise Changes the Brain

It has been shown that mice exercising on a running wheel sprout new connections between neurons in the brain. Exercise may cause the release of what are called “growth factors,” which trigger neurons to make new connections.

These new connections could help to reduce symptoms of OCD. Exercise also promotes the release of endorphins, which are “feel good” neurochemicals, boosting mood and fending off stress.

  • Exercise Improves Self-Esteem

When you start exercising regularly, you just feel better about yourself and have more self-confidence. This enhanced sense of self-esteem and confidence may help individuals better cope with stress, which is a major trigger of OCD symptoms.

  • Exercise Can Be a Social Activity

Exercise usually involves getting out to the gym, meeting up with a running partner, or joining a sports team. Getting out and connecting with people is a great means of social support. Effective use of social support is perhaps the biggest way to ward off the negative effects of stress.

  • Exercise Provides a Distraction

Most vigorous forms of physical activity require that our attention is focused on what is happening in the moment. In this way, exercise could provide a welcome break from obsessions and compulsions, as well as give you a sense of control over your symptoms.

Check With Your Doctor Before You Begin

If you are thinking about adding exercise to your overall treatment strategy, be sure to speak with your doctor to make sure beginning an exercise program is right for you.


Abrantes, A.M., Strong, D.R, Cohn, A., Cameron A.Y., Greenburg, B.D., Mancebo, M.C., Brown R.A “Acute changes in obsessions and compulsions following moderate intensity aerobic exercise among patients with obsessive compulsive disorder” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 2009 23: 923-927.

Brown, R.A., Abrantes, A.M., Strong, D.R., Mancebo, M.C., Menard, J., Rasmussen, S.A., & Greenberg, B.D. “A pilot study of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for obsessive compulsive disorder” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders 2007 195: 514-520.

Mark B. Powers, Gordon J. G. Asmundson, and Jasper A. J. Smits. "Exercise for mood and anxiety disorders: The state-of-the science." Cognitive Behaviour Therapy 44 (4), 2015.

Rector NA, Richter MA, Lerman B, Regev R. "A Pilot Test of the Additive Benefits of Physical Exercise to CBT for OCD. " Cognitive Behaviour Therapy 44 (4), 2015.

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