Anxiety and Exercise: Running For Instead of From Your Problems


In the age of Romantic poetry, that wonderful time with no workplace safety standards and toilets that were just pots you threw into the street every morning, society, or artists at the very least, viewed emotion in a different way. Whereas now people see the goal of life to be the pursuit of happiness, Romantic Poets sought out new and better ways to be sad. This might explain why today many view artists as melancholy recluses that shutter away the sun and couldn’t finish the mile run in middle school. Shockingly (or not, depending on your middle school experience), recent research into exercise and its relationship with anxiety and depression shows that there might be some truth to this stereotype.

Exercise is typically associated with just physical fitness; you work out so you can take your shirt off in a pool without being called a whale. While this reduction of fat is certainly the most visible effect of exercise, there are other less tangible benefits. Recent studies have shown that the changes in body chemistry that exercise causes also play an important role in helping you shed emotional blubber, especially in the case of anxiety and depressive disorders.

Understanding The Issue

With approximately 25% of the American population citing having an anxiety or depressive disorder at some point in their lives, it’s hard to imagine a person that hasn’t at one point watched a loved one struggle with a crippling and overwhelming dread of everyday tasks. For the lucky few of you that haven’t had the experience, allow me to elaborate. A high trait anxiety indicates that an individual is more likely to perceive situations as stressful and react with a state of anxiety. A state of anxiety is when the person feels tense, nervous, and worried, leading to an activation of the autonomic nervous system (the fight or flight reflex). Similarly, a high trait depression leads a person into depressive states more easily, where they experience helplessness, chronic sadness, and loss of interest. Disorders occur when an individual has an unusually high trait, and are usually treated using medication or various forms of therapy. Depending on the severity of the disorder and the methods used to treat it, patients can expect varying levels of success and side effects.

The Problem With Antidepressants

People have started paying a great deal of attention to antidepressants in recent years, and with good reason. Many antidepressant medications come equipped with a long, daunting list of side effects, some almost comically scary. The next time one of their commercials comes on, see if you can read that tiny chunk of text they flash across the bottom the screen. If you can manage it without a microscope, it’ll tell you that antidepressants can cause tics, muscle spasms, parkinsonism, akathisia, dyskinesia, insomnia, skin rashes, headaches, joint and muscle pain, loss of libido, upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, increased chance of stomach and uterine bleeding, and an increase of suicidal thoughts. As if this wasn’t enough, combining these with other medications can result in the effects of one or both drugs being either nullified or augmented, meaning that even taking just an Aspirin for a headache can almost double your chances of stomach bleeding.

You may be wondering why people don’t simply stop taking antidepressant medication when they start to notice these symptoms, and the answer is that some actually do. Unfortunately, quitting any drug cold turkey comes with its own list of nasty side effects, and anxiety and depression medication is no exception. For common anti-depressants, this list includes dizziness, loss of coordination, fatigue, tingling, burning, blurred vision, insomnia, vivid dreams, nausea or diarrhea, flu-like symptoms, irritability, anxiety, and crying spells. By taking any antidepressant or anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medicine over an extended period of time, you expose yourself to the risk of withdrawals if and when you no longer need it.

What Can Exercise Do?

While some may argue that antidepressant drugs have more immediate effects on depression than exercise does, recent studies have shown that this disparity diminishes over a period of weeks until it becomes negligible. It is theorized that perhaps exercise is an effective treatment because the chemicals released during exercise lead to adaptations in the hypopituitary adrenal axis (HPA), the part of the brain that have to deal with stress and emotion. Essentially, the body is conditioned for anxiety and depression inducing situations. Another theory proposes that, rather than being attributable to pseudo-stressful situations, exercise’s mental benefits are due to the related distraction, social interaction, and self efficacy. Loosely translated this means that the culture rather than the science of running is what helps cure anxiety and depression.

Regardless of the why, studies and experiments have shown that exercise does indeed work to reduce anxiety and depression. Exercise has already been proven to be more effective than other non-medicinal treatments, such as group treatment, music therapy, and meditation, and just as effective as medicinal treatments in cases of mild to moderate disorders. Within a period of 16 weeks, any disparities between exercise and medications effectiveness disappear. Unlike medication though, with its intimidating fallout and withdrawal, the side effects of exercise are increased overall wellness, a reduced risk of chronic diseases, and whole host of other benefits.

Works Consulted:


  • Wegner M, Helmich I, Machado S, Nardi AE, Arias-Carrion O, and Budde H. (2014). Effects of Exercise on Anxiety and Depression Disorders: Review of Meta-Analyses and Neurobiological Mechanisms. CNS & Neurological Disorders Drug Targets. Volume 13(6), pages 1002-1014.