How Exercise is an Exciting Treatment for Anxiety

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Most of the doctors I have seen about my anxiety and mood problems were quick to pull out their prescription pads. Medication was their go-to treatment for anxiety.

In just a couple months, I must have tried 3 or 4 different medications that had nasty side effects ranging from drowsiness to nausea to sever headaches and more.

The medications were in a class called SSRI’s (serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) and have been a widely prescribed drug for anxiety, depression, and used off-label to treat other problems.

I was following my doctor’s advice, but taking medication never interested me. I wanted more control over my brain and not rely on a pill to function normally. When I researched anxiety and viable treatments, I stumbled on Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

In his book, John J. Ratey discusses the benefits of exercise on the brain and devotes an entire chapter on the treatment of anxiety with exercise alone.

If you don’t feel comfortable taking medication to treat your anxiety issues, you should read on to find out how exercise can help you stop the medication.

I tried implementing regular exercise to my weeks and saw great improvements in my mood and ability to cope with anxiety.  

I wanted to discuss the key points from that chapter and how it influenced my anxiety treatment.

7 Ways Exercise is a Treatment for Anxiety

Among other topics, John. J. Ratey explains that exercise affects anxiety on seven factors that help its management and treatment. He argues that in certain cases, exercise has more advantages than medication alone.

Lets look over the seven factors:

1- Exercise Distracts you

Anxiety has a way of making us worry and focus on the negative aspects of our lives. We stay stuck in a loop of fear and self-doubt which fosters more anxiety.

You worry about worrying. The fear of anxiety makes you more anxious.

The book discusses that distractibility is important when suffering from anxiety. You need to break free from hyper focusing on negative thought patterns and fears.

Many studies have shown that mindfulness or socializing help focus your mind on something else besides the fear. Exercise distracts you in much the same way and provides other benefits that treat your anxiety.

Exercise can have an even more dramatic effect on milder anxiety, the kind that isn’t bad enough for medication but is still troublesome.

John J. Ratey

2- Reduce Muscular Tension

The physical symptoms of anxiety are wide ranging and vary from case to case. Those who suffer from anxiety can attest to sweaty palms, racing heart, heavy breathing, and more.

A less established symptom is the link between anxiety and increased electrical activity in muscle fibers (I.e., increased muscle tension). In 1982, studies showed that exercise reduced the tension in muscles that can go with anxiety attacks, much in the same way beta-blockers help to reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Beta-Blockers, another class of drugs which can treat the immediate effects of anxiety in certain situations, work to reduce your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. Beta-blockers help control the physical symptoms of anxiety and can interrupt the feedback you get from body to brain; when you feel the oncoming physical symptoms of anxiety, they can feed into more anxiety and so-forth.

Exercise provides the same effect as beta-blockers and has a tranquilizing effect by reducing the associated muscle tension and calming the mind. Managing the physical symptoms helps reduce anxiety and manage your brain and you can do this with exercise alone.

3- Build Brain Resources

Chemical imbalances in the brain have been well documented as a probable cause of anxiety disorders, and exercise helps balance and increase these chemicals. Many neurotransmitters, or chemicals messengers, send information through the brain and body and are imbalanced and decreased in those suffering from an anxiety disorder.

The neurotransmitter serotonin is linked to mood, sleep, appetite and other regulatory functions in the body. Medications like SSRI’s work to inhibit the re-uptake of serotonin by neurons and leaves more available for use by the brain.

But these medications have side effects that deter patients from this treatment option.


Mental health issues are mostly treated through medication that targets either serotonin, which we’ve discussed, dopamine (known as the reward neurotransmitter) and/or norepinephrine (affects attention, motivation and arousal; responds to stress).

Physical activity increases these neurotransmitters much like medication, but without the side effects.

The effects exercise can have over medication make it an attractive choice for patients averse to taking medication.

4- Understand Anxiety as Okay

I already mentioned a feedback loop between the physical symptoms and anxiety itself. Physical symptoms feed anxiety and you start a cycle of feeling anxious because you feel the onset of the symptoms you’ve associated with anxiety.

If you’ve ever worried that your palms were becoming sweaty or felt your heart race before public speaking, and then had trouble focusing because you felt yourself lose control, you understand how the physical symptoms can make you more anxious.

Exercise helps by producing many of the same symptoms you experience during anxiety. Your blood pressure rises, your heart races, perhaps you sweat. With time, those symptoms become associated to a positive outcome, instead of being associated with fear and anxiety.

Exercise helps rewire the pattern you’ve associated with the negative symptoms of anxiety.

5- Change the way you Think

Anxiety often leads to passivity. Those who suffer tend to hide away from their fears and try to stay safe. When you encourage your brain to hide-away from fears, you prevent actions which could help rewire your thoughts and help treat your underline anxiety.

Make new connections in your mind

Exercise gives you control over your brain and aids the brain to think and view more positively the life events which cause your anxiety. When you exercise, you take control of your actions and view your outcomes more positively.

On a neurological level, you also increase the resources needed by your brain to build new neuronal connections and alter false memory systems and pathways.  

6- Achieve Self-mastery

Medication was not an acceptable anxiety treatment for me, because I felt like I was cheating my way into feeling better. This could be one reason I never felt much difference during my medication treatments, although I cannot be sure.

Personal Takeaway

My greatest take-away from the book came from understanding that exercise would help me regain control over my mind. In my experience, medication might not have worked for me because I didn’t believe in its effects.

I wanted to have control over my brain and taking medication did not help me achieve that.

Exercise helps me regain control. I better enjoy many aspects of my life because of it. I am more fit, happier, and am working to fight my anxiety actively; not relying on a pill or exogenous substance to power my brain.

Losing your self-control is a big factor in anxiety and depressive disorders. With time, we come to back ourselves into a metaphorical corner and lose faith that we have the power to manage and treat our anxiety.

Ironically, understanding that you have the power to change your brain is a great method to overcome both anxiety and depression.

Taking control is at the root of many psychotherapy approaches including cognitive-behavior therapy, which teaches us to rewire and take control of our thoughts and actions that before sparked fear or unease.

Take control of your mind through regular exercise and treat your anxiety through the points mentioned above; you will learn self-mastery.

Seeing that you can manage your anxiety through actions of your own will make you feel in control and power your recovery and long-term success battling anxiety.

Medication may help in the immediate treatment of anxiety, but rarely achieves permanent changes the way mastering your mind will; most professionals recommend medication and therapy for this reason; medications control the symptoms, and therapy claws at the underline cause.

7- Freedom

When you isolate your self because of social fears or other anxieties you may have, you are trapping yourself. Exercise provides the key to set you free and explore a world beyond the anxiety filled one you have created for yourself.

You should consult a therapist or doctor and work with them to find a suitable treatment for anxiety depending on your needs. This article only presents an available treatment choice that has very little downsides, and many, many benefits for both physical and mental health.

If you are interested in reading the full book, you can find it here. Or you can check out my other recommended books!

Thanks for reading. Go exercise and remember to stay happy!


[1] Ratey, J. J., & Hagerman, E. (2013). Spark: the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown.

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