15 best exercises for depression and anxiety by Petrolene Le Roux

Anxiety was barely known as an illness before the 19th century.  Anxiety is caused by worrying about the future.  Depression is a prolonged state of sadness because of past events and experiences.

Most people experience anxiety or depression at some point in their lives.  Many physicians prescribe mental and physical exercises to improve a patient’s state of mind.

Here are some of the best exercises for anxiety and depression. 

It is not a one size fits all. Find an exercise that resonates with you and your lifestyle.

Mental And Breathing Exercises

Mental and breathing exercises help you relieve stress and tension from your body. It helps the body to release feel-good hormones. It also decreases hormones that cause stress symptoms like increased heart rate and shallow breathing.

1. Relaxation Through Breathing

By changing your breathing, you can stimulate the body’s hormonal system to get you into a relaxed state. You can also reverse the symptoms of a stress response, like increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and tense muscles.

When you are anxious, you tend to breathe shallow, rapid breaths. To calm down, you want to breathe into your lower lungs as well so that you use your diaphragm during the movement.

Natural breathing techniques can be exercised throughout the entire day. This will also provide enough oxygen to fill your lungs and will control the exhalation of carbon dioxide.

Sit up straight or lie down. Slowly and gently inhale a deep breath of air through your nose, filling your lungs. Your stomach should expand when you inhale to make sure you are using your diaphragm.

Exhale slowly through your mouth.

Focus on and listen to your breaths as you fill up your lower lungs. Continue this breathing pattern for 5 times.

2. Visualization

Visualization is a powerful technique to help you find “your happy place”. When you create a mental picture of a place in the future where you feel calm and relaxed, you can teach your brain how to operate as if you are already in that situation.

Sit in a quiet and comfortable place away from any distractions.

Think about a place where you truly feel relaxed. It can be any place in the world. It can be a real place or a mental picture of a place in your imagination.

See in your minds-eye exactly what the place looks like. What colors do you see? What do you smell and feel? What sounds do you hear?

Identify as much detail as you can. Once you have the mental picture in your mind, you can focus on your breathing.

See yourself in this picture as a relaxed being with no symptoms of anxiety and free of worry.

Whenever you start to feel anxious, you can visit this place in your mind. Take your time and don’t rush your visit to your “happy place”.

3. Relaxing Your Muscles

When you start to feel anxious, you will feel tension and strain in your body and your muscles. This muscle stress can make it more difficult to control your anxiety or depression.

If you can release some tension from your body, you can reduce your anxiety levels.

You can do this exercise while you lie down or sit in a quiet place without any disruptions.

Focus on your breathing.

Start with your toes and notice all the tension you feel in your toes and your feet.

Slowly relax all the muscles in your toes and your feet. Notice the feeling of tension leaving your feet and moving upwards towards your calves.

Slowly relax all the muscles in your calves and notice the feeling of tension moving up your body to your hips, and then your hands, your arms, your shoulders, your neck, and your mind, until all the tension has left your body.

Work your way up until your whole body feels relaxed and tension free. You can stay in that state of relaxation for as long as you need.

4. Relaxation Through Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice of being in the present, focusing on your current state and environment.

Mindfulness is all about bringing your mind back to the here and now. It is about turning down the noise in your head and focusing on what you can control in the present moment.

There are several exercises and activities you can do to practice mindfulness. They include:

  • Guided meditation
  • Doodling or colouring
  • Walking
  • Putting your phone on Do Not Disturb
  • Journaling
  • Getting 10-20 minutes of natural sunlight per day

Mindfulness can help you gain confidence and manage your emotions in a healthier way.

5. Affirmations And Self-Talk

Thoughts enter our minds at a rapid pace every single day. The mind only has one job: to do what it thinks you want.

Your thoughts control your emotions and your emotions control your actions and behavior.

Well-renowned hypnotherapist Marisa Peer explains that “it is important to talk to yourself and about your situation in positive language…when you start thinking it’s the end of the world…your mind starts to believe that it has already happened.”

Have a list of elaborative and positive words available and use them to describe your life in the present tense. Your mind is much better at understanding things in the present tense.

6. Relax By Interrupting Your Anxious Thoughts And Self-Regulate

An over-conscious mind is a common feature of anxiety and depression. These thoughts can be thoughts about past experiences in your life which created deep emotions for you at the time.

They may also be thoughts about the future and thoughts that are blown out of proportion. They consume a lot of your time and oftentimes, there is no rational evidence that these thoughts are true. And from all the possible solutions in the world, our mind is particularly good at picking the worst possible outcome.

This technique is a great tool you can use to self-regulate. It’s a technique I use often with my clients.

STOP: As soon as you notice your mind reacting to a trigger, say out loud STOP.

TAKE A BREATH: Breathing slower and deeper with every breath will calm you down.

OBSERVE YOURSELF: Be aware and notice the thoughts going through your mind. Become aware of how you feel and the urge to react in an impulsive way. Become aware of the behavior and the cycle you are caught up in.

PULL BACK AND PUT IT IN PERSPECTIVE: This is a tough one, but do not believe everything you think. Thoughts are just thoughts and seldom facts!

PROCEED AND PRACTICE WHAT WORKS INSTEAD: Decide how you can respond to this trigger in an alternative way.

Practice this technique regularly. It will help you become proficient in applying it to more stressful situations and thoughts.

Physical Movement And Exercise

Studies have shown that exercise can be utilized as one of the treatment options for depression. It is also an effective anti-anxiety treatment as it relieves tension and stress in the body.

Make sure you build your physical activity gradually if you are new to an exercise program. Starting with a walk every morning for 2 weeks is often enough to help you try out new things.

Here are a few options for you to try out.

7. Biking

Apart from its physical benefits, pedaling a bike can improve your neuro-muscular brain function. There is evidence that practicing a motor skill, like bike riding, is great for cognitive function. It can also boost enjoyment and motivation.

One study which focused on people with depression showed that after pedaling a stationary bike for about 15 min, the level of their stress hormones declined.

You can get an online practice buddy if you station indoors or find a nearby recreational cycling group and venture into nature.

8. Gardening

Research has shown that spending time outside in nature is good for our minds.

Gardening provides you a great way to connect with nature and is associated with increased emotion regulation.

Some gardening programs have also found that gardening:

  • Reduces depression, anxiety, and stress-related symptoms
  • Increases your ability to concentrate and engage
  • Helps with goal setting and feeling of acceptance

There are several therapeutic gardening communities that support individuals with mental health. You can inquire at your local nursery or search online for your closest community. If you do not know where to start, find a gardening community on social media.

9. Brisk Walking Or Jogging

Aerobic exercises like jogging and walking can help reduce anxiety and depression. Studies suggest that exercise increases blood flow to the brain, thus causes mood improvement.

Exercises like walking and jogging are effective in reducing fatigue and improving concentration and cognitive function. This is helpful if stress has caused you to be tired or if you’re struggling to concentrate on your daily tasks.

Walking and jogging is an easy, inexpensive form of exercise. Walking outside in nature and parks is a great way to connect with nature. It also releases “feel-good” hormones that can calm you down and can thus improve your ability to sleep.

10. Swimming, Rowing And Water Aerobics

Being in water can help you relax. For the first time, it has also been shown that swimming in cold water can be an effective treatment for depression.

Jumping into cold water produces a stress response in the body. This is a set of physiological and hormonal reactions in the body when it copes with a wide range of threats.

You can join a local gym that has a swimming pool or aerobic classes. You can also find some local swimming clubs that regularly go for open water swimming.

11. Dancing And Dance Movement Therapy

Dancing can significantly influence our moods, emotions, and attitudes. It is a form of performing art and creativity and is usually a way in which people express feelings or ideas. Dance classes are like moving meditation.

Many practitioners find that dancing has the potential to effectively treat anxiety and depression. It is also a method for finding a peaceful state of mind.

Dancing causes our thoughts to focus on our bodies and our movements, instead of worrying about the stressors in our lives.

Joining a dance class allows you to experience being in a room with other people, without the pressure of having to make small talk. For some people, being in groups might be overwhelming for that specific reason.

You can explore dance-based fitness classes like Zumba, or other creative dance classes like ballet that involve more creativity.

Contact a local studio in your area to find a dance class. If you are unsure what to expect, contact the instructor before you go.

12. HIIT Exercises

HIIT exercises and classes have produced some amazing testimonials of mental recovery for many individuals.

The physical exertion of HIIT, like CrossFit, can take you out of your head and help you find your inner strength.

High-Intensity Interval Training is a workout that is done at high-intensity and in intervals.

The group setting provides support and allows you to forget about your anxious or depressive state in this environment.

According to research, bouts of intense exercise may be able to prevent and treat depression.

You can contact your local gym, CrossFit, attend a studio class, or download a mobile app to get in an effective HIIT training.

13. Muscle Strengthening Exercises

In a study that was done involving more than 1,800 people, it was found that those with mild to moderate resistance training 2 or more days a week saw a significant reduction in their depressive symptoms. The study also found that resistance training can be beneficial for those with severe symptoms.

One way in which resistance training can be beneficial is by the promotion of better sleep. Resistance training has also been shown to reduce anxiety sensitivity.

During strength training, chemicals in the brain can trigger changes in the brain’s function and structure. 6 Months of resistance training has also shown to increase the size of certain regions of the brain. These physical changes in your brain help to regulate mood.

You can incorporate bodyweight exercises with resistance bands, weight training at your gym, or join a local weightlifting group in your town.

14. Yoga

Yoga postures, also known as asanas, help ease the physical tension caused by anxiety. It can also help to reduce and calm down anxious thoughts.

The Harvard Mental Health Letter has recently suggested that yoga can:

  • Help with anxiety and depression
  • Be a self-soothing technique like meditation and breathing relaxation
  • Improve energy

As with other exercise modalities, yoga is a natural way to increase serotonin production. Serotonin is a hormone that plays a role in depression and happiness. People with depression and anxiety exhibit greater levels of cortisol. Yoga is associated with lowering cortisol, a stress hormone, in individuals.

You can search for yoga classes online, at a gym, or a fitness studio. Some local community centers also offer yoga classes

15. Pilates

Like yoga, Pilates can assist in the treatment of anxiety and depression by changing the chemicals in the brain. It provides a place for socialization. It is also a distraction from negative thoughts because it actively engages your brain in the exercise.

The main difference between Yoga and Pilates is that Pilates specifically focuses on trying to relax muscles which are tense.

Pilates is also widely used in community gatherings to cope with stress and enhance your stress resilience.

You can search for Pilates classes online, at a gym or a fitness studio.

The Takeaway

We experience anxiety and feelings of sadness from time to time as a natural response to an unnatural situation or a disaster. But being in a prolonged state of anxiety and sadness can have an adverse effect on your health.

To relieve stress, engage your mind and body at least 5 times a week in some form of exercise. Be patient when you start a new exercise regime. Set small daily goals. The activities do not need to be perfect. What matters most is that you are consistent.


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