How many of us convince ourselves that there simply isn’t enough time in the day to work out? Yet, we still make time to binge watch our favorite shows, play video games for hours on end, or indulge in delicious foods when boredom plagues us.

The reality is that we make time for things that are important to us. With that being said, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that shows how exercise, specifically cardiovascular exercise, can help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, most of us realize the facts and don’t exercise due to a lack of motivation and apathy.

For the sake of your mental wellbeing, I hope I can convince you otherwise, unless of course you’re already an avid exerciser.

When you exercise, your heart rate increases, your respiratory rate increases, your senses become sharper, you begin to perspire, and your muscle tense up. These are all of the same symptoms someone would experience during a panic attack.

However, the key difference here is that when someone is exercising, these symptoms are associated with safety, not fear. Exercise can help to condition your mind to associate the feeling of stress with safety, instead of danger.

When we exercise, we put a lot of stress on our nervous system and our cardiovascular system. Taxing these systems can help condition them for when we endure real life stressors, such as a divorce or a career change, with more resilience and calmness.

Taking it one step further, we can observe this hypothesis in a real life scenario with experiments involving lab rats. Michael Lehmann, PhD, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, conducted a study involving mice, who like humans, are also vulnerable to social stress.

“Exercise and mental enrichment are buffering how the brain is going to respond to future stressors,” Lehmann says.

In this study, Lehmann subjected some of the mice to “social defeat” by pairing small, submissive mice with much larger, aggressive mice. There was a small divider that separated both mice. However, for a few minutes each day, the divider was removed so that both mice could coexist in the same space together. Without a moment’s glance the bully mice had to be restrained from harming the much meeker submissive mice.

Throughout the day, the submissive mice experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety even when they were separated from the larger mice with the divider. A different group of mice, however, proved to be much more resilient to stress than the previous group mentioned.

About three weeks before the mice were subjected to social defeat, they were put into different groups where they experienced completely different living conditions. As some of the mice were confined to cages, others were able to move much more freely by exploring in tubes and using a running wheel.

Unlike the mice that were confined to the bare-bones cages, the bullied mice that had been housed in the much more elaborate and open environments showed no signs of rodent depression or anxiety after they were subjected to social defeat.

Now, let’s look at the effects that exercise has on Serotonin and Endorphins.

Serotonin is considered to be a natural mood stabilizer and it can help to relieve depression and anxiety. Thus, why people who suffer from these two ailments tend to be prescribed a class of drugs called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs. Aerobic exercises, such as jogging and cycling, are the most likely to boost serotonin levels in the brain.

Endorphins are hormones that act as analgesics, which means that they help to diminish the perception of pain. They can also act as a sort of sedative. These pain reducing hormones differ greatly from analgesic drugs such as morphine as it does not lead to addiction or dependence. The pain-relieving component of endorphins is part of the reason why people feel so good after they workout.

Studies on the Effects Exercise has on Anxiety and Depression

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population suffer from anxiety disorders every year. Although this is a staggering number to say the least, exercising consistently may indeed help such people to reduce their symptoms of anxiety tenfold.

According to a study published in 2013 by Elizabeth Anderson and Geetha Shivakumar, there is strong evidence to support that 2 – 2.5 hours of moderate to high-intensity exercise per week is sufficient enough to reduce one’s risk for the occurrence of chronic disease(s).

There is a vast amount of studies which have shown that exercise improves self-esteem, as well as one’s sense of well-being and that it may even have a type of protective effect against the development of mental disorders.

There are many studies that have been done on the effects that exercise has on depression, such as the Duke SMILE Studies. In these studies, colleges conducted multiple randomized control trials (RCTs) which compared the effects of aerobic exercise to antidepressant medication.

In one of the SMILE (Standard Medical Intervention versus Long-term Exercise) studies, 156 older adults who were diagnosed with major depressive disorder were randomized to four months into three different groups. One group engaged in aerobic exercise. The second group took the antidepressant sertraline. And the third group exercised aerobically and took sertraline.

Subjects in the exercise group worked out three times per week at approximately 70-85% of their heart rate reserve. Participants in the sertraline group were titrated for therapeutic response on sertraline (50-200mg) by a psychiatrist.

After 16 weeks of treatment, the three groups did not differ in their level of depressive symptoms, suggesting that exercise and standard antidepressant treatments were equally effective.

Exercise tips

For those of you who aren’t fitness minded, I’d like to briefly go over a handful of ways to exercise that are extremely beneficial for helping you to reduce anxiety, as well as how to make fitness an ongoing habit in your life. While lifting weights is definitely advantageous for many reasons, the real magic happens when we engage in aerobic (cardiovascular) exercise.

Some examples of aerobic exercise are walking, jogging, biking, swimming, hiking, and skiing, just to name a handful. If you’re a very sedentary person and you have absolutely no idea whatsoever how long to exercise for, where to exercise, or how intense to exercise, then you may want to look into getting a personal trainer.

Learning how to exercise is only part of the battle. You will also need to figure out how to make time for it in your busy life. As I mentioned before, we make time for things in our life that are important to us. Your mental health is clearly very important to you, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article.

Furthermore, to get the most out of your athletic efforts, it is imperative that you are consistent. You can’t expect to only workout three times a month and then have your anxiety disappear.

If you can squeeze in three 30-minute cardio sessions a week, then do it.

If you can fit in five of them Mon.-Fri., then do it.

Don’t shortchange yourself as you will surely suffer if you decide to do so.

For most of us, the more convenient something is, the more likely we are to do it. With this being the case, try to make exercising as convenient as you possibly can. Essentially, the less motivated you are to exercise, the more convenient you will need to make it.

So, try to find a local park near your house so you can go jogging or biking first thing in the morning. Or perhaps you may want to join a gym that’s right by your work so you can just swing by right after you finish your shift.

To make exercise an integral part of your lifestyle, convenience is key. Regardless of how you decide to go about doing it, it is absolutely essential that you implement aerobic exercise into your life not as an arbitrary occurrence, but as a permanent habit. Doing so will allow you to reap the equanimous benefits you so long for.