Can Exercise Help Cure Anxiety?

“Girls” star Lena Dunham wasn’t just showing off her new workout gear in a recent Instagram post—she had an important message for people struggling with anxiety.

Can Exercise Help Cure Anxiety?

Lena Dunham (Photo: Instagram

Promised myself I would not let exercise be the first thing to go by the wayside when I got busy with ‘Girls’ season 5 and here is why: It has helped with my anxiety in ways I never dreamed possible,” she wrote. “To those struggling with anxiety, OCD, depression: I know it’s mad annoying when people tell you to exercise. It took me about 16 medicated years to listen. I’m glad I did. It ain’t about the a**, it’s about the brain. Thank you”

Dunham’s message echoes the recommendation often given to anxiety sufferers—exercise regularly. According to theAnxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 18 percent of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from an anxiety disorder and just five minutes of aerobic exercise can lessen its effects.

Research backs up the link. A study of more than 19,000 people in the Netherlands found that those who exercised regularly were, on average, less anxious, depressed, and neurotic. A Princeton University study published in 2013 found that mice that exercised frequently were less likely to remain anxious in a stressful situation than those who were more sedentary. And a 2010 study from East Carolina University found that even less intensive forms of exercise like yoga can help ease symptoms for anxiety sufferers.

Exercise can also help people who have anxiety about their body image, as one study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology discovered.

“Exercise is one of the first things I talk about with people in my practice,” says licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, who specializes in the treatment of anxiety.

While it’s widely known that exercise is important for overall wellness, how does it help treat anxiety in particular? It helps increase our brain strength through the protein BDNF. “When our brain is stronger, we can handle our anxiety better and are better able to determine what is reasonable and what is unreasonable,” Clark tells Yahoo Health.

The other important connection between exercise and anxiety is its ability to target the physical aspects of stress. Some more severe forms of anxiety trigger a protective physiological response, also known as the fight or flight response, Clark explains. That response can create extra energy in your body that can convert to a buildup of energy in your muscles and an increased heart rate, which then leads to an agitated feeling. Regular exercise can help anxiety sufferers burn off that energy buildup before it leads to that agitated feeling.

While exercise is a powerful tool for anxiety sufferers, and may minimize the odds that people will develop anxiety, Clark says it still works best for some people when combined with medication. (In her Instagram post, Dunham said she’s one of them.)

Research backs it up: Whether you suffer from anxiety or are just going through a stressful time, it’s better to work out than not.