The Effect of Exercise on Anxiety and Depression

July 24, 2020

a person

By Sabrina Burch, an SIUE Senior Intern in Exercise Science

Having anxiety or depression sometimes puts exercise at the bottom of your to-do list, if it is even on it at all. It requires energy and focus that, depending on the day, you simply may not have.  Understanding the potential benefits exercise has to offer to reduce symptoms in people who have mild to moderate depression and anxiety may be the one thing to get you motivated to start exercising more.  

Did you know that 75% of all cases of mental illness begin developing by the age of 24? Over 40 million U.S. adults suffer from anxiety and 75% of them experience their first episode by the age of 22 (9). Over 30% of college-aged students in 2011 indicated sometime within the last 12 months they, “felt so depressed it was difficult to function” (1).  

College can be a very stressful environment for young adults and many students tend to become very anxious once they begin their college education. Juggling many aspects of life such as school, work, and social life can put a toll on anyone’s mental health, potentially allowing mild to moderate depression to set in without the student even realizing it.  

How does exercise help ease anxiety and depression?  

  • Releases a hormone in your body called endorphins. They are a natural chemical produced in your brain that helps your body cope with stress (4).  
  • Distracts you from what may be causing your anxiety and depression (4).  
  • Moving can help reduce the tension in your body which will lower the feeling of anxiousness (7). 
  • Boosts your mood by releasing serotonin (3). 
  • Improves appetite and sleep cycles (3).  

What type of exercise is most beneficial? In a study of exercise treatment of clinical anxiety, it was found that aerobic exercise was effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression. High-intensity exercise programs were found to be more effective than lower-intensity exercise programs (2). Examples of exercises that have been found to be most helpful include running, swimming, cycling, walking, dancing, and even gardening (8).   

How much should you be exercising? ACSM’s current recommendations suggest at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (4). This comes out to only 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise 5 days per week. If 30 minutes seems like too much, try breaking it up into 3-10-minute increments throughout the day. When you are feeling anxious, choosing to go for a 10-minute walk may help lessen your anxiety. 

Anxiety and depression are very common, especially among college students. There are many forms of anxiety and levels of depression. If you are unaware of what anxiety and depression symptoms may look like here are some common indications (6). 


  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Racing heart 
  • Restless sleep 
  • Irritable/always on edge 
  • Panic 


  • Lack of energy 
  • Changes in weight/appetite 
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Loss of interest in things you usually like to do 
  • Feelings of sadness/anxiety over long periods of time 
  • Feeling hopeless 
  • Thoughts of death or suicide 
  • Attempt of suicide 

While exercising may help alleviate symptoms in mild to moderate cases of anxiety or depression, it is still important to seek help. If you or someone you know may be experiencing signs or symptoms, talk to your doctor or seek out a mental health professional. Below is a list of helplines/hotlines:  

  • SAMHSA is a National Helpline that is free, confidential, and available 24/7, 365 days a year for treatment referrals and information about mental disorders. 1-800-662-4357 
  • HopeLine offers crisis intervention, non-judgmental listening, and referrals to resources. You can call and/or text. 919-231-4525 | 877-235-4525 
  • National Suicide Prevention Line is a free 24/7, confidential support line for people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis. 1-800-273-8255 



(1) American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2011. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association; 2012. 

(2) Aylett, E., Small, N., & Bower, P. (2018). Exercise in the treatment of clinical anxiety in general practice - a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC health services research, 18(1), 559.  

(3) Collins, R. (0535, July 03). Exercise, Depression, and the Brain. Retrieved from  

(4) Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. (2017, September 27). Retrieved from 

(5) Exercising with Anxiety and Depression. (n.d.). Retrieved from  

(6) Holland, K. (2018, June 20). Depression and Anxiety: Symptoms, Self-Help Test, Treatment, and. Retrieved from 

(7) John J. Ratey, M. (2019, October 22). Can exercise help treat anxiety? Retrieved from 

(8) Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106.  

(9) Teens and College Students. (n.d.). Retrieved July 20, 2020, from 


Categories: All Categories, exercise, anxiety, mental health, depression, internship