3 Ways Exercise Can Relieve Anxiety Related Disorders

Are you familiar with the expression…
“Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” 
Great advice, right? Sounds like something the cool kids would say. 
Well, it’s become so overused that it’s become cliche. Google it and you’ll be inundated with books, images, and products all touting its apparent wisdom. 
For the 40 million Americans adults who struggle with anxiety disorders, such “wisdom” likely rings hollow. For these good people, “sweating” stuff, whether big or small, is a daily fact of life. Anxiety Related Disorders (ARD) are the most prevalent form of mental illness, affecting as many as 18% of adults and 25% of teenagers. 
They are highly treatable, yet only about one in three receive treatment. Treatment options range from medication, to Cognitive-behavioral Therapy, to you guessed it… good-ole exercise. 
A very encouraging fact is that exercise is highly effective at treating the various forms of ARD. 
Let’s start by defining what we mean by “anxiety”. 
We all experience anxiety. It is a rational and healthy anticipation of anything that could be considered a threat. It becomes unhealthy when that anxiety is not rational or persists after the actual threat has passed. 
ARD is a cognitive misrepresentation. It is fear. But misplaced fear. 
Fear is a memory of danger. With ARD we experience fear of things, people, or situations for which a “normal” person wouldn’t rationally feel fear. According to Dr. John Raney, clinical psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, “If we suffer from anxiety disorder, the brain constantly replays that memory, forcing us to live in fear… Unlike the normal stress response, in anxiety the all-clear signal isn’t working properly.”
There are various shades of ARD: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, specific phobias, and Social Anxiety Disorder. Also, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and PTSD are often considered as part of the ARD spectrum. In the interest of brevity, we won’t go into detail about each of these in this post. 
ARD often leads to or can be caused by Depression. It is quite common that people who suffer from one are also afflicted by the other. 
The good news: exercise helps. A lot!
(See the box below for more about the biological and psychological effects of exercise on anxiety)
Exercise can immediately shut down feelings of impending panic. Researchers have shown that they can quickly interrupt generalized anxiety and panic attacks with relatively short bouts of moderate exercise. 
When we make regular exercise a habit, we actually build reserves of neurochemicals. We have more good stuff like serotonin available when we need it. Additionally, the structure of our brains changes as new neural pathways are constructed and old troublesome ones are abandoned. 
And finally, exercise sets you free. We don’t have to be victims to the oppressive emotions that ARD brings, feelings of helplessness and entrapment, like we’re prisoners to our fears and apprehensions. 
Exercise breaks those chains. It teaches us that, through our own initiative, we can moderate its symptoms and bring our anxiety under control. Given time, each little win builds upon the previous until the sufferer begins to feel a glimmer of hope that can build to the elation of being set free from the darkness and all consuming worry that has become their life.
Wouldn’t it be great if we never had to “sweat the small stuff”? That’s probably too much to ask. But, when we find ourselves persistently sweating stuff, big and small alike, it’s good to know that we all have at our disposal a tool that can break the cycle and help us to start feeling better. 
It may not be miraculous, but exercise is unquestionably helpful and accessible to practically all of us. 
I hope you’ve found this series of essays about stress and anxiety helpful and encouraging. Please know that Julie and I hope to be a resource to you and are always just an email or phone call away. 
Strong body, strong mind!

3 Ways Exercise Will Help with Biologically and Psychologically with ARD

Biologically, exercise can flood our brain and bloodstream with beneficial neurochemicals that we’ve been discussing in my earlier posts: 

  1. Serotonin – a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect and creates a state of peace of mind. Serotonin is the target of anti-depressive medications. They’re known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRI’s. 
  2. GABA – gammaamino-butyric acid, another neurotransmitter, whose job it is to shut down obsessive feedback loops in the brain. This is the messenger that tells the brain it’s “all-clear”, the danger has passed and it can stand down. GABA is a target for many anti-anxiety medications. 
  3. ANP – atrial natutiuretic peptide, secreted by heart muscle (myocardium), it helps deescalate the hyperaroused state. 

Psychologically, exercise is effective by: 

  1. Reconditioning us to the sensation of physical arousal. Elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, and elevated core temperature are very similar to what somebody suffering from a panic attack will experience. Exercise retrains our brains to associate those sensations with a beneficial activity rather than a potential trigger. 
  2. It literally provides a distraction that reclaims brain bandwidth that might otherwise be dominated by the doom loop of obsessive negative thoughts. 
  3. Building resilience. Exercising teaches our bodies and brains that a different outcome is possible. We can back take control of our thoughts and feelings. It helps develop self-mastery, a potent antidote to the feelings of helplessness that often lead folks with ARD to Depression. 


  1. Hibbert, C., 8 Keys to Mental Health Through Exercise, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2016. 
  2. Johnsgard, J., Conquering Depression and Anxiety through Exercise. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004. 
  3. Ratey, J. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. 

Paul Reilly

Paul is the Owner and Founder of MidStrong. He created MidStrong in 2017 to train men and women in midlife who are busy with work and family to build muscle and burn fat so they can look and feel better than they did in their 20’s. MidStrong is making Functional Fitness training safe and fun, and inclusive. He and his wife, Julie also own and operate MidStrong locally, their bricks and mortar business, previously called ACCELERATED Strength & Balance. It is a boutique fitness center specializing in training folks in and around Westborough through the challenges of midlife for more than five years.