Use Exercise to Control Anxiety

use exercise to control anxiety

Written by Dr. Paul Kelly, C.Psych.              March 1, 2024

What Will You Learn Here?

Exercise can help you control and overcome Anxiety. This article tells you Why and How.



Why This Matter? A simple lifestyle change can help you control anxiety.

People with inactive lifestyles are at greater risk of anxiety. There are biological reasons for this. Physical activity affects hippocampal functioning in the brain. Other brain processes also respond to physical activity. You can improve and manage anxiety by increasing your physical activity. This is confirmed by studies of anxiety symptoms, panic disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Exercise by itself is helpful. Psychotherapy also works better when it is combined with an exercise program.


What is Anxiety?

Why This Matter? Understanding anxiety and fitness can help you take control of your life.

Anxiety is a normal emotional reaction when you are nervous or scared. Anxiety is like your body’s alarm system. The alarm is a good thing because it keeps you safe. That’s how anxiety works. It’s your brain’s way of telling you to be careful when it thinks there is danger. You might feel anxious if you hear a noise at night. Did someone break in? But when you see that your cat knocked a lamp over, your anxiety stops. Normal anxiety goes away after you realize there is nothing to fear.

Anxiety can become an Anxiety Disorder if the alarm does not shut off. This can happen if your brain predicts trouble when there is none. Your brain could make this mistake for several reasons. You had a bad scare. Your childhood was traumatic. If anxiety runs in your family, you have a genetic sensitivity to danger.

Your physical fitness level also makes a difference. Poor fitness puts you at risk of more anxiety. Better fitness protects you.


It’s Not Your Fault

What This Matters: You don’t need to blame yourself for not exercising more.

Do you feel guilt or shame about your level of physical activity? It’s not your fault. You have been affected by changes in society and the COVID-19 pandemic. Many factors inadvertently affect your physical activity level.

Factors Influencing Physical Activity

  1. Global Pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread lockdowns and social distancing measures.  Gyms closed. Team sports were cancelled.  People were encouraged to stay indoors. All of this disrupted people’s regular exercise routines.
  2. Shift to Remote Work: The transition to working from home has resulted in less physical movement throughout the day.
  3. Economic Constraints: Economic stress and job insecurity made gym memberships and fitness classes a lower priority for many people.
  4. Digital Entertainment Culture: With the rise of streaming services, social media, and video games, leisure time is increasingly spent in front of screens. This cultural trend happened to you. You did not choose it. But it has reduced your physical activity.
  5. Social Pressures: Do you feel pressure these days to keep busy all the time? This pressure makes it hard to set aside time to work out. It can also be hard to stay motivated about working out when you watch superfit people on TikTok or YouTube. Impossible standards can get in the way of starting an exercise program. These comparisons can make you feel hopeless and inadequate.

Don’t worry. Now that you recognize these factors, you set them aside. Trust yourself. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to be a beginner. You can start to exercise. This change will help you protect your mental health and reduce anxiety.  Read on to get some tips and guidance.


Is Now the Right Time to Start Exercising?

Why This Matters: It will be easier to stick with a new routine if you understand the pros and cons.

We know that regular exercise can help you manage your anxiety. Still, you have to decide whether now is the right time for you to change your routine. It might not be. I have listed some of the pros and cons for starting to exercise and for not starting. Have a look. Weigh up the pros and cons for yourself. You have a right to make your own choice about how you spend your time and energy.


What Are the Pros and Cons of Starting to Exercise?


  • Reduced Anxiety: Regular exercise reduces anxiety and depression.
  • Better Physical Health: Exercise reduces your risk of heart disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. You will feel stronger and more confident.
  • Increased Energy: You will have more energy and vitality. You sleep better and feel rested in the morning.


  • Time Commitment: You will set aside time for exercise. Could you cut back screentime?
  • Risk of Injury: Be sensible. Get coaching for some exercises like free weights. Build up gradually.
  • Initial Discomfort: It can take time for your body to adjust to new activities. You might feel stiff and sore when you start. I still feel sore after strength training, but I know it means I had a good workout. If you feel pain, stop the exercise and get advice. Pain may signal that you have injured something or that your technique is wrong.


Is A Little Exercise Worth the Trouble?

Why Does This Matter? Starting small is still worth doing.

Absolutely. A brisk 10-minute walk can improve your mood. Even small amounts of exercise can help you reduce anxiety. When you walk, feel your body moving. Notice the sky, the feeling of the air on your skin. This mindfulness of walking can give you a mental break from worry and rumination.


How Much Exercise Would Be Best For You?

Many experts recommend about 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise or 60 minutes of vigorous exercise.  What does this mean for you? Let’s have a closer look at both options – moderate and vigorous exercise:

Moderate Exercise to Control Anxiety

Moderate exercise increases your heart rate and breathing to some extent. It’s not too easy, but your are not pushing youself to your limits.

Examples of Moderate Exercise:

  1. Brisk Walking: Simple, accessible, low-impact. A faster pace than a leisurely stroll.
  2. Water Aerobics: Exercise in a pool provides resistance to movements. It is also easy on the joints.
  3. Cycling on Level Terrain: Riding a bike on flat ground or gentle hills at a steady pace.
  4. Doubles Tennis: Playing tennis with a partner gives you a workout with moderate movement and effort.
  5. Dancing: Social or ballroom dancing that keeps you moving. It won’t wear you out, and it can be a lot of fun.

How It Feels Compared to Vigorous Exercise: During moderate exercise, you’ll notice an increase in your heart rate and breathing. You won’t be out of breath. You should be able to talk. Singing would be difficult. You are working out but not pushing yourself to the brink.


Vigorous Exercise to Control Anxiety

Vigorous exercise requires more effort. It significantly increases your heart rate and breathing. You might need to pause for breath.

Examples of Vigorous Exercise:

  1. Running or jogging: You shift from a walking gait to running.
  2. Swimming laps at a fast pace: You are working hard against the resistance of the water.
  3. Cycling at a fast pace or with steep hills: You go from cruising to racing.
  4. Singles tennis: It is faster-paced than doubles tennis.
  5. Aerobic dancing or fast-paced dance classes: This can be very enjoyable with music, in a class or on your own.

Comparison: Vigorous exercise makes you breathe hard and fast. It’s more challenging than moderate exercise. You shouldn’t be able to say more than a few words without pausing for breath.


Types of Exercise For Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers

What type of exercise would be best for your age cohort? Here are some suggestions. Also, check with your friends and coworkers. They may know about something in your local area that would be great for you – and maybe you could exercise with them.

Gen Z (Born between 1997 and 2012)

  • Exercise types:
    • High-intensity interval training (HIIT): Quick and intense workouts.
    • Dance workouts: Fun and engaging.
    • Virtual reality fitness games: Integrating technology into exercise.
  • At-home exercises:
    • HIIT workouts using online tutorials.
    • Dance routines from social media platforms.
  • Outdoor activities:
    • Skateboarding or rollerblading in local parks.
    • Playing sports like basketball or soccer with friends.
  • Motivation:
    • Compete with friends or family.
    • Try new and trendy workouts.
    • Use social media to share progress and connect with others.

Millennials (Born between 1981 and 1996)

  • Exercise types:
    • CrossFit: Combines strength training and cardio.
    • Group fitness classes: Provides a sense of community.
    • Running or cycling: Individual pursuits with measurable goals.
  • At-home exercises:
    • CrossFit-inspired workouts with minimal equipment.
    • Online group fitness classes.
  • Outdoor activities:
    • Running or biking on trails.
    • Participating in outdoor boot camps or fitness meetups.
  • Motivation:
    • Create a routine and stick to it.
    • Set specific, time-bound goals.
    • Reward yourself for reaching milestones.

Gen X (Born between 1965 and 1980)

  • Exercise types:
    • Walking: Simple, low-impact, and accessible.
    • Swimming: Provides both physical activity and stress relief.
  • At-home exercises:
    • Bodyweight exercises like push-ups, squats, and lunges.
  • Outdoor activities:
    • Walking or jogging in the neighborhood or local park.
    • Hiking in nature trails.
  • Motivation:
    • Set achievable goals.
    • Join exercise groups or classes.
    • Track progress with apps or journals.

Baby Boomers (Born between 1946 and 1964)

  • Exercise types:
    • Walking: Simple, low-impact, and accessible.
    • Swimming: Provides both physical activity and stress relief.
  • At-home exercises:
    • Chair exercises targeting strength and flexibility.
  • Outdoor activities:
    • Walk in your local park. Mall walking in the winter is okay too.
    • Gardening or light yard work.
  • Motivation:
    • Set realistic and achievable goals.
    • Find a workout buddy or join a group.
    • Track progress and celebrate small victories.


How to Start an Exercise Program

Starting an exercise program involves setting realistic goals and finding activities you enjoy.

  1. Set Achievable Goals: Begin with small, manageable goals and gradually increase your activity level.
  2. Choose Enjoyable Activities: You’re more likely to stick with exercises that you find fun.
  3. Schedule Your Workouts: Treat your exercise time like any other important appointment.

Why Does This Matter? A well-planned start can lead to a sustainable exercise habit, helping you manage anxiety more effectively.

How to Keep It Going

Maintaining an exercise routine can be challenging, but there are strategies to stay motivated:

  1. Track Your Progress: Keeping a record can help you see your improvements and stay motivated.
  2. Vary Your Routine: Mixing up your exercises can keep things interesting and prevent boredom.
  3. Get Support: Whether it’s from friends or an online community, support can keep you accountable.

Why Does This Matter? Staying consistent with your exercise is key to managing anxiety long-term, and these tips can help you stick with it.


What Are Some Good Fitness Apps?

Apps and online resources can help you get started with an exercise program. There are lots to choose from. I mention a few options that therapists recommended at my Clinic. See what interests you. What can fit with your budget and living situation?

  1. Apple Fitness Plus: One of my therapists loves this app. She and her partner use it every day. If you have an Apple device like an iPhone, Apple Watch, or Apple TV you can access a huge library of workout routines and exercise tips.
  2. Guardian Magazine Recommendations: I trust the Guardian as a source of honest reviews. Have a look at this article about 26 free or cheap fitness apps, sites and podcasts:
  3. Apps like “Fitbit” or “Nike Training Club” also offer structured workouts and track your progress.
  4. Ask your friendsand family what they use. Perhaps you can find a ‘fitness buddy’ to exercise with.


A Personal Note

I have had significant anxiety in my life. It motivated me to learn how to manage anxiety. I started with mindfulness meditation and other mental techniques. I was not a jock or an athlete growing up. My older brother was the sports guy in our family. I stayed inside and read books. All of the mental techniques and psychological strategies were worth learning. You should explore them as well.  You also have a right to benefit from increase physical activity.

I am very grateful that I started to learn about physical activity and mental health. These days I do high-intensity strength training twice a week for 30 minutes. (Something else may be right for you.) This exercise routine has been a real blessing for me. I can feel the benefits. I still get stressed and worried at times, but I don’t get stuck in anxiety or worry.

You have a chance to do something wonderful for yourself. Start to exercise. Try one of the apps in the Resource list. It is okay to start small and build from there. Even a 10-minute walk, once a day will help you mental health.

You have my sympathy if you have an anxiety disorder. Remember, anxiety can be tamed, so it doesn’t control your life. Your anxiety may not go away completely. But you can learn to reduce and control it. Improvement is possible. Exercise and physical activity can help you a lot. You have a right to enjoy your life. I wish you well.



It is important to me that you find practical and trustworthy information. That is why I personally selected and reviewed all the sources for this article. My advice is also based on my own experience with anxiety and my decades of experience. I have treated thousands of clients. I have also trained and mentored hundreds of therapists and psychologists. The therapy approaches I recommend are used at my Clinic. We track progress, so I know that the techniques can help.