Health / Mental Health

Sweat Away Stress: How Exercise Can Help Reduce Anxiety 

Here’s a look at the different ways exercise can help reduce anxiety and what types of exercise to focus on.

In today’s fast-paced world, it’s hard not to feel stressed every now and then. Whether it’s work, finances, raising children, managing romantic relationships or simply coping with everyday inconveniences like traffic or forgetting tasks on your to-do list, stress has become increasingly prevalent and affects millions of individuals worldwide. 

Stress is intrinsically linked to anxiety, or sudden feelings of anxiousness can create a complex emotional and physiological response. Similar to stress, when someone experiences anxiety, their brain is perceiving a threat whether the threat is real or not, explains Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University and author of What to Eat When You Want to Get Pregnant. “In the mind, the amygdala responds by telling the hypothalamus to initiate fight-or-flight mode. It signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream,” she says. “The person may begin to experience rapid breathing and heart rate, tense muscles and flushed or pale skin.”

While there are a myriad of methods to help you manage stress and anxiety, one powerful tool that often goes overlooked is regular exercise. In fact a 6-week study published in the journal frontiers in Psychology followed 185 students recruited from German universities, found that engaging in heart-pumping exercise just 2 days out of the week was enough to significantly reduce perceived psychosomatic stress and improve quality of life. 

Ways Exercise Helps Reduce Anxiety

Here’s a look at the different ways exercise can help reduce anxiety as well as stress, according to experts. 

Releases feel-good endorphins

Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators, explains Kiara Luna , L.M.H.C., is owner of Knew You Psychotherapy and author of Becoming a Knew You. “Endorphins can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, promote feelings of happiness and relaxation, and improve overall mood,” she adds.

Encourages relaxation

Luna explains that engaging in exercise not only provides you with a healthy distraction from anxious thoughts and worries, but it also allows you to focus your attention on your physical sensations and movements involved in the activity. “Exercise can also promote relaxation by helping you to relieve muscle tension which then promotes better sleep quality, which ultimately can also help alleviate anxiety symptoms,” she adds.

Lower cortisol

The stress hormone cortisol is lowered by physical activity, according to research, including one study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. “If you regularly exercise your body, this can help you regulate your body’s stress response system, making you more resilient to stressors and less prone to experiencing anxiety,” Luna explains .

Improve sleep

Sleep is so important for your overall health and wellness, yet, as many as 1 in 3 American adults are not getting enough sleep each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Adequate sleep can help regulate mood, reduce irritability, and enhance resilience to stressors, all of which contribute to lower anxiety levels,” explains  Dr. Avena.

Types of Exercise Beneficial for Anxiety Relief

While any form of movement can provide bountiful benefits for those suffering from stress and anxiety, here are the exercises that experts recommend the most.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercises are those that get your heart pumping, such as jogging, cycling, swimming or dancing. These activities increase heart rate and oxygen circulation, stimulate the release of endorphins, and promote relaxation and stress relief, explains Dr. Avena. She recommends starting off steady and not pushing yourself too hard, especially if you are already feeling anxious, as it could exacerbate your symptoms


Yoga combines controlled breathing, and mindfulness techniques to promote relaxation and reduce stress, explains Dr. Avena. “It can help individuals become more aware of their bodies and thoughts, fostering a sense of calm and inner peace.” Certain types of yoga, namely restorative or gentle yoga, may be most effective for individuals grappling with anxiety, as they are slow flows and restful. 

Tai Chi

This mind-body practice that originated in ancient China is similar to yoga in the sense that it involves slow, flowing movements and deep breathing exercises. Tai Chi promotes relaxation, balance, and mindfulness, making it an effective tool for reducing anxiety and improving mental health, notes Dr. Avena.


Pilates is a low-impact exercise that focuses on strengthening the core muscles, improving flexibility and promoting body awareness through controlled movements, explains Luna. “This can help you reduce anxiety by increasing mindfulness, reducing muscle tension, and improving posture,” she adds.

Strength Training

Strength training exercises, such as weightlifting or resistance training, provide a host of benefits, especially for older individuals. This is because we naturally lose muscle as we age. Strength training can help build it back while simultaneously releasing endorphins that can help feel more empowered and confident.

Mindful Walking

Mindful walking involves walking slowly and deliberately while paying attention to the sensations of movement, breath, and surroundings. It can be a simple yet effective way to reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and increase mindfulness and presence in the moment.

Incorporating Exercise into Your Anxiety Management Routine

Integrating exercise into your daily routine can be a powerful strategy for managing anxiety and promoting overall well-being. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. Be sure to start slowly and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts to avoid injury and burnout.


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