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How Does Exercise Help Stress and Depression?

author image S.R. Becker
S.R. Becker is a certified yoga teacher based in Queens, N.Y. She has a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has worked as a writer and editor for more than 15 years. Becker often writes for "Yoga in Astoria," a newsletter about studios throughout New York City.
How Does Exercise Help Stress and Depression?
Combine exercise with mindfulness meditation to help reduce stress. Photo Credit Janie Airey/Digital Vision/Getty Images

People who suffer from anxiety and depression can reap significant benefits from regular exercise. Not only does working out distract you temporarily from your worries, it can help elevate your mood for several hours afterward. If exercise seems overwhelming to you, start small. Even 10 minutes of exercise a day can be beneficial.


Although everyone experiences stress from time to time, chronic anxiety can become crippling. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that anxiety disorders affect over 40 million Americans, making them the most common mental illness in the country. If you tend to avoid crowded places such as gyms and yoga studios for fear of panic attacks, short bursts of exercise -- alone at first, if necessary -- can serve as a type of exposure therapy. If you find exercise stressful, starting to work out a little at a time can help you build a sense of mastery over stressful situations, which can make you feel more confident in other anxiety-provoking environments. As an added bonus, exercise helps calm your nerves, decreasing your overall stress level.

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Exercise increases production of the neurotransmitter serotonin in your brain. In their book "Exercise for Mood and Anxiety," authors Michael W. Otto, PhD, and Jasper A.J. Smits, PhD, report that the efficacy of exercise for treating depression is similar to the efficacy of antidepressants. Getting your heart pumping with a good workout also releases endorphins, natural mood-elevating chemicals. Participating in a group exercise class or working out with a friend also enhances feelings of social connectedness, which can be particularly beneficial if you tend to isolate when your moods plummet.

Suggested Workouts

The good news about exercise for stress and depression is that you don't need to become a gym rat. Six 20-minute cardiovascular exercise sessions a week can decrease anxiety symptoms as much as 12 90-minute therapy sessions. Brisk walking will suffice, whether outdoors or on a treadmill. Vigorous mind-body workouts, such as Vinyasa yoga, also known as "power" or "flow" yoga, can help focus and calm your mind while strengthening your body. This happens by connecting you to your breathing as you practice the poses. No matter how you break a sweat, even if it's just dancing around your living room, getting your body moving allows you to reap the mental benefits of exercise.

Other Suggested Workouts

If you're looking for a workout that will allow you to socialize with others, try a team sport. Basketball, football, baseball and soccer are a few options. Joining a group exercise class, such as spinning or aerobics, allows you to be in a group of people without direct contact, but you might find yourself making friends if you frequently work out with the same people. Classes that allow you to learn a new skill, such as dance or martial arts, can help motivate you to keep exercising.

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