This Is Your Brain on Exercise - a blog by OptimalLife Wellness Center - Therapy in Bellevue, WA

By Lara Symonds, MA, LMFT, DCEP

So, I’m waiting for Jill (not her real name), my 3 p.m. client to arrive, and she does—15 minutes late and hitting the ground running. She’s talking very quickly and fidgeting like mad with some fidget toys that I keep on the coffee table in my office. Jill tells me that her anxiety has gone through the roof over the past three weeks since we last talked. So, we start exploring what might have caused her “relapse.” (What I call a return to intense anxiety after a period of low anxiety).

“I don’t know,” she says. “Nothing’s going wrong with my boyfriend and me, except that we’ve been arguing more over the past week, but I was feeling anxious before that. Work is okay, and my sleep is bad again, but I think that’s because of my anxiety.”

“Anything else change?” I ask Jill.

“Well,” she tells me, “I was doing circuit training every other day, and I haven’t been able to do that for the past two and a half weeks because I twisted my ankle.”

“So, have you been able to exercise at all?”

“No, it’s been too painful.”

“When did your anxiety start escalating?”

“A couple of days after I twisted my ankle.”

It wasn’t difficult to pinpoint the likely culprit for her relapse—in this case, it was her lack of exercise. Whenever one of my clients experiences an anxiety relapse, I play Sherlock and eliminate suspects until I find the culprit. Most of the time, it is letting a coping strategy slide—not the stressor—that elevates anxiety. When it comes to both anxiety and depression, exercise (or the lack thereof) plays a key role in excellent mental health or mental breakdown.


Is exercise as effective as medication for treating anxiety and depression?

Can exercise stomp out medication for treating anxiety and depression? Research says yes!


Numerous studies have shown how exercise compares to medications and therapy (usually cognitive-behavioral therapy) in treating anxiety and depression. Most reach the same conclusion: Exercise is as effective as medication or therapy in treating both anxiety and depression in the short term.

What is truly fabulous, however, is that longitudinal studies are showing that exercise actually beats out medication much of the time over the long haul. This is likely because once people start exercising regularly, they’re likely to continue to exercise because of the many benefits they enjoy from exercising. Whereas people often prefer to get off medication as soon as they possibly can.

The greatest effect for improving mood and mental health in general appears to be the combination of therapy and exercise. Why? My hypothesis is that exercise treats the symptoms of anxiety, and therapy treats both symptoms and the underlying causes. Since, however, therapy doesn’t always provide immediate relief in the way exercise does, the two in tandem team well together.


Exercise feels good and is a known booster to self-esteem.

Exercise feels good and gives a boost to our self-esteem.


Aside from mental health, brain and body health improves as well. Studies are increasingly showing that regular exercise:

  • Is protective against Alzheimer’s
  • Improves memory
  • Improves flexibility (both mental and physical)
  • Improves balance and coordination
  • Boosts self-esteem
  • Improves sleep

Why Is it So Hard to Start an Exercise PRogram?

I could go and on about the benefits of regular exercise, but I won’t. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 30 years, I’m sure you know by now that exercise is good for you. Often, however, knowing that something is good for us does not necessarily translate to us doing it.

Sometimes, the block we have about exercise is due to some deeper issue that is best worked through with the help of a therapist. Most of the time, we put obstacles in our path to exercising because of inertia. You might recall from your high school physics class that inertia is the scientific notion that bodies in motion stay in motion, and bodies at rest stay at rest. To change from one state to another requires a significant output of energy.


Newton's pendulum is a great example of inertia. It takes a big swing from one ball to get the others moving.

Newton’s pendulum is a great example of inertia. It takes a big swing from one ball to get the others moving.


This is what happens to us when we stop exercising—inertia sets in. Our initial reaction to not exercising after developing the habit is one of discomfort, dis-ease—it doesn’t “feel” right, our mood goes down, and our anxiety goes up. We want to get back to that good feeling of exercise. It is critical that, while you’re feeling that way, you get back into exercise as soon as possible. Otherwise, we acclimate, as humans do, and develop inertia against exercising. Then we become “too tired” or “too busy” to exercise. Starting an exercise program then feels uncomfortable, painful even, and requires a great deal of energy to get going.

Knowing about inertia, it’s helpful to start any exercise program with baby steps. Most gyms and exercise videos will caution you to consult your doctor before starting any program, and this is prudent if you have a serious health condition and/or are starting a very vigorous exercise program. But nearly everyone can walk and will benefit greatly from walking, even short distances, on a regular basis. So, try walking a little bit every day, gradually lengthening your walks and, perhaps, picking up the pace as well.

Aside from those with mobility issues, I recommend walking to all of my clients, even those who are quite physically active. This is because walking, preferably outside, stimulates us bilaterally, causing the hemispheres of our brains to communicate more effectively and rapidly with each other. (For more information on bilateral stimulation and its effects on the brain, check out work by Francine Shapiro or Laurel Parnell.) This increased brain activity leads to endorphin release, causing feelings of calm and relaxation, and we often find we can think through problems in our lives more effectively while walking. Couples, too, may find that they can communicate more easily with each other while walking than when they’re sitting down.


Walking is great for general anxiety. It helps us clear our heads and promotes relaxation.

Walking is great for general anxiety. It helps us clear our heads and promotes relaxation.


Really, any form of moderate exercise helps alleviate depression and anxiety, so if walking isn’t your gig, try something else to get your body moving—that is key. In general, higher intensity workouts, such as running or circuit training, are best for depression and severe anxiety. Lower intensity workouts, like yoga or walking, are great for general anxiety because they promote relaxation and reconnection with your Self in the Now.

Which brings us back to my client Jill, who had been highly anxious most of her life. She had tried a variety of treatments, including medication, therapy, and exercise, but found that she felt best when she was both exercising intensely and in therapy. And now we had a situation where she couldn’t do the exercise that she found worked best for her.

It would be easy, and many of us fall down this hole, to just let all that great self-care and exercise go, and wallow in a pity party for our lost exercise routine. That wouldn’t do you or your anxious, depressed brain any favors, and it wasn’t helpful for Jill, either. Instead, we developed an alternative exercise program on non-impact, intensive exercise (swimming), which, although not her ideal, did the trick for her anxiety while her ankle healed. I highly recommend—with your doctor’s approval, of course—that if you are similarly exiled from your usual exercise, to find an alternative and quick! Before inertia sets in.

For more information about the wonderful effects of exercise on our brains and bodies, I recommend Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Daniel G. Amen, MD, as well as books by Dr. Dan Siegel and blogs/podcasts by Andrew Weil, MD.