What type of exercise helps most with depression and anxiety?
January 31, 2014 2:21 PM   Subscribe

If exercise helps with depression and anxiety, what type of exercise helps most? I'm open to both sciency answers of the "Here's a study that says structured group activities yield the fastest results" variety and personal accounts like "Long distance running saved my life."

You can safely assume that I am already pursuing other avenues like therapy and medication. This is an addition, not a replacement.

I basically want to attack this thing on as many fronts as possible, but because it is eating so much of my confidence and energy, I feel like the only way I have a prayer is if I'm really smart and targeted about how I use my remaining resources.

So what's going to give me the most bang for my metaphorical buck? Where should I start?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (53 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 2:24 PM on January 31, 2014 [9 favorites]

There was a recent similar question that might have some helpful answers.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:25 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

The time period when I had the least anxiety in my life was when I was running 40 miles per week. There may be many reasons for that, but I suspect one of them is that being in better cardiovascular shape gives many people a lower resting heart rate. I have also noticed that a really hot shower or time in a hot tub sometimes brings me back from the verge of a panic attack, and I think it is because that lowers my heart rate, too.
posted by cairdeas at 2:26 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Without being glib, I would say the exercise that gives the most benefit is the exercise you'll actually do. That is, think about what kind of exercise could actually make a sustainable and enjoyable habit for you.
posted by threeants at 2:33 PM on January 31, 2014 [39 favorites]

Regular - that may sound flip but what I mean is exercise that you'll do regularly multiple times a week and that ideally gives you an endorphin boost. For me these days it's a mix of cardio interval classes, strength training and walking. I have NEVER gotten a boost from running unless there was a ball involved but playing soccer worked for years. So find something you'll stick to and try it.

And on preview I see that threeants is on the same page as I am on this one.
posted by leslies at 2:34 PM on January 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

Agreed with threeants - it's the exercise that you're most likely to do, stick with consistently AND enjoy. Everyone seems to proclaim the wonders of running but for the life of me I cannot do it without it resulting in worse anxiety, so it's really not the right choice for me.
posted by joan_holloway at 2:35 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

Agreed, even though running has personally worked for me, I completely agree with everyone else.
posted by cairdeas at 2:36 PM on January 31, 2014

Regular, intense cardio.
posted by Pax at 2:41 PM on January 31, 2014

Walking is what my mum did a lot of after my father's death.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:42 PM on January 31, 2014

In my personal experience, any exercise works as long as it challenges you a bit. Even ten push-ups can give me a boost, because push-ups are hard for me.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:43 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Running saved my life.
posted by Miko at 2:43 PM on January 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

I dunno about running, but for me nothing changes my life like walking outside, a lot. If I can walk 100 miles outside in a month, I feel amazing. Secondary to that (because outdoor walking is not always feasible) is walking indoors and swimming.
posted by KathrynT at 2:47 PM on January 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

So what's going to give me the most bang for my metaphorical buck? Where should I start?

Start with Crossfit by finding a local gym or instructor that specializes in it. If you don't like that, try swimming. If you don't like that try running. If you don't like that try walking. If you don't like that...

See where this is going? Whatever exercise that you like to do and will do regularly is the best one for you.

Personally, Crossfit changed my life, because it was intense, fairly short bursts (around 30 minutes a session) and different with eachsession so that I was always being forced to be alert to learning the new "routine." Hated running because it was boring as hell to run for more than a 2 miles or so.

Your will vary. Be prepared to try several things before you find what really works for you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:48 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

cycling does it for me. the more i do it the more addicted i get, to the point of where i hate riding the subway and if i am walking around and i see someone on a bike i get jealous. it gives such a RUSH. when it's freezing out and snowing, it really effects how often i can get out there and i'm finding now that the LACK of cycling makes me feel depressed... so in a sense it has definitely helped to make me feel better when i can get out there. also i met a group of really awesome women here in NYC that host a bunch of group rides so i've not only found folks with a similar passion, i've made a ton of friends as well.

i also run but i struggle more with that than with cycling. running is more effective for getting in shape, whereas when i ride my bike i feel like i ride for my mental health. that's why it gets my vote.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 2:51 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Personal experience: dancing classes, all kinds of, but especially zumba. My goodness. I think one part of it was because it's an interesting way to get yourself sweating. Running and swimming etc. are just so monotonous they allowed me too much time to, well, dwell. Which of course sucks when one's depressed.

When you're doing a fast paced dance, you have to focus on the movements and forget about the rest. Otherwise you'll bump into somebody or go twirling in the opposite direction of everyone else. (And sometimes you still do, and you get to exercise your sense of humour, too.) Really, because I'm not a great dancer at all, there was this element of "to hell with it, I'm already depressed, so now let's look ridiculous" to it. And there was an entire class of us making fools of ourselves, grannies and all. It just made me feel like a human, you know? Some kind of bonding, on a very non-demanding, non-taxing level.
posted by sively at 2:51 PM on January 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

When I was in the hospital this past summer for depression, my favourite forms of exercise were running (treadmill, iPod in ears) and badminton, oddly. Anything that gets you really moving helps.

I've fallen off the exercise train, need to get back on it, so I'll echo above: the best exercise is whatever you can do regularly.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:53 PM on January 31, 2014

Nthing the advice that the best exercise for you is whatever you enjoy the most and can do regularly.

The specific suggestions above are all well and good, but everyone is different and it's likely that something that hasn't been listed will click best for you. For me the answer is Pilates. For you it might be something different.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 2:56 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do things that are fun and social. I'm also lucky enough to have friends who enjoy hiking, snowshoeing, etc, so I get the exercise and the time outside. Nothing beats getting outdoors in the winter, especially when you live in a place with shitty weather like I do. I also enjoy Zumba, kettlebells, yoga, outdoor ice skating (rink near my house!) and the occasional run. And I have had more fun with a hula hoop than all of those things put together. That piece of tape-covered tubing saved my life in a way. And I'm not saying it'll work that way for you, but when you find the thing you really enjoy, you will know.

The key for me is variety. Some of my physical activity is solitary, but most of it isn't. I take classes and have found a great group of friends to be active with. A couple of years ago, I was an overweight and depressed couch potato and now can't believe I have been doing all this physical activity consistently for the last couple of years and getting down with nature on a regular basis. It took a series of steps, but man it feels good. All the best to you in finding the thing that makes you happy.
posted by futureisunwritten at 2:58 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also agree that whatever activity you like and will actually do.

Personally I do the elliptical at the gym (listening to podcasts usually), walk my dog (which has the added bonus of checking "exercise dog" off my to-do list, which reduces my anxiety), and go to Zumba classes.

Also I don't really consider yoga "exercise" because the type of yoga that I like is very gentle/relaxing, but it's really good for anxiety.
posted by radioamy at 3:04 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

For me it's sports! Both high-energy (soccer) and low-energy (volleyball) bring up my mood a lot.

Definitely agree that the answer is "anything you'll actually do". Any kind of moving around helps. I find that the mental challenge of sports helps as well, although that might not be true for everyone.
posted by randomnity at 3:13 PM on January 31, 2014

Yes - the solitude of running may make you blue. The social pressure of a fast-paced class like Zumba may ratchet up anxiety. The being-so-close to failing raw effort of boot camp may sink you. Shop around and find something that works for you.

Any exercise has metabolic benefits. Find one that doesn't offset those with stress and one that, ideally, works your mind in a good way.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:23 PM on January 31, 2014

I'd like to expand a little on "do the exercise that you like."

I've done strenuous exercise at different times in my life -- with increased heart rate, sweating, endorphins, etc. It did make me feel better mentally and physically. I don't get the same exhilaration from gentler exercise, but it still does me a lot of good. My routine now is to lift weights without pushing myself much. I also do lots of stretching, which feels great. I usually ride a stationary bike for 10-15 minutes, but rarely go over 75 rmp. If I want to get the cardio/out of breath/wow what a workout feeling, I do intervals of high rpm alternating with a moderate speed. All this is good because it's regular and scheduled, I know it's good for me, and while I'm concentrating on my form, I can't think about anything else. Because of my depression, I'm pretty sedentary, so the exercise really makes a difference. Plus, it gets me out of the house. This will probably sound weak to those who are mentally healthy, but I'm sure you know what a big difference it makes just to leave the building.

When I used to walk, I did it on a regular schedule. I walked faster than normal, but again, I wasn't pushing myself hard. This exercise also kept my mind from going to anxious or sad thoughts. I intentionally noticed my surroundings. I did and do consider it very beneficial, even though it was "just walking."

No matter what kind of activity you choose, expect that you'll lose motivation after a while. Decide ahead of time that you'll then start something else, so you'll have the attitude of "what's next?" instead of "d'oh, I failed." Also, my motto is "just show up," which makes it possible for me to just make a start even when I least want to do it.
posted by wryly at 3:29 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've read studies that suggest its at least partly the endorphins from exercise that helps with depression, and I think that effect is strongest with very strenuous exercise. Anecdotally I get the same sort of endorphin feeling after a hard cardio workout as I do after a punishing weight-lifting session (but I don't get it at all from gentle exercise like walking or slow cycling).

For me, though, one advantage to strenuous non-stop exercise like running (over e.g. weightlifting where you take regular breaks between sets) is that I just can't think while I'm doing it. I can't ruminate on whatever I am anxious about, because I am having to spend all my mental energy on not dying. It puts me into a very calm blank mind state that gives me a break from my own psychological crap.
posted by lollusc at 3:47 PM on January 31, 2014

Don't sweat it if you try running, and don't get what's so magical about it. I gave running a serious try, as a New Year's resolution in 2011, and got from barely being able to run for a minute to completing a ten-mile race. I do remember that period of my life as being a pretty productive one, compared to other, depression/anxiety affected periods of barely accomplishing anything, but I never really enjoyed running all that much.

What I do enjoy nowadays (in addition to a very helpful SSRI prescription) is hiking and doing barre classes that are tough enough to keep me thinking about whatever. So whatever you choose, make it something that's challenging but not unenjoyable.
posted by Aubergine at 3:59 PM on January 31, 2014

I'm going to echo lollusc about the sustained exertion factor. When I go to spinning class I am thinking about my cadence, or my watts, and I really get out of my head. I like that the room is dark during class, so you can sort of zone out, you aren't making eye contact with other people, but then before and after class there's a little social chitchat and when you become a regular people notice when you don't show up. So it's a nice mix of a group class and a solitary endeavor.

Then I leave class and feel GREAT for the rest of the day.
posted by ambrosia at 4:00 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've heard that it's best to do fairly intense cardio (running, dancing, etc) for something like 35-40 minutes minimum.
posted by three_red_balloons at 4:27 PM on January 31, 2014

Lifting weights works for me, because I mainly work with my brain all day. It's a form of moving meditation for me, which has the added effect of a long term progress plan - I can look at my logs and see that I lifted this heavy thing one week, then this heavier thing the next week. There's something really simple (pick up heavy thing, put down heavy thing) and yet mindful (pick up heavy thing **properly**, put down heavy thing **properly**) about it. If you do decide to start lifting, it's well worth investing in two or three sessions with a trainer, so you learn how to do it properly.
posted by RogueTech at 4:27 PM on January 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Cardio has really been helpful for me. One thing I did was dance (kick, hop around the house, shimmy like Britney and shake like Shakira and bump like Beyonce). The other thing that really worked (a couple years later) was trail running -- I'd walk up the hills and run along the flats and downhill sections. I miss that!
posted by mochapickle at 4:39 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

For anxiety, yoga. For depression, anything physically exhausting and progressive. I love lifting, hate running, but they work equally well.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 4:40 PM on January 31, 2014

Walking (with brief bursts of running) works best for me. Personally I've found that when I go from being totally sedentary back to taking daily walks of any duration, I feel a bit better, pretty much immediately. Noticeably better all day long, well worth the time put in, but nothing earthshattering.

If I keep it up though, walking a few miles a day every day for a couple weeks, I level up and feel WAY better physically and emotionally. This fact has helped me recommit to daily exercise - I remind myself that I'm only 30 miles away from feeling like a superhero.
posted by jessicapierce at 4:55 PM on January 31, 2014

For me, using an elliptical is the best (I don't like running but I imagine it would be similar if I did). Walking helps too but not as much, I think because cardio-wise it's a lot less intense.

Any amount helps a little but I've noticed that for me anyway longer time periods (45-50 minutes or more) are more effective. For example, 50 minutes every other day seems to help more than 25 minutes every day does.
posted by treese at 4:56 PM on January 31, 2014

I did the elliptical for many years, but running and doing heavier weights (barbell) has been much more effective for me in combating anxiety and depression. Try different things and see what works for you.
posted by mogget at 5:11 PM on January 31, 2014

Walking in a green place like a park with a lake, a walking trail through a forest or by a stream, etc. (Just looking at nature is helpful for a lot of people, and having interesting things to look at helps me stay out longer. Plus, sunshine helps a lot with improving mood and increasing alertness.)
posted by wintersweet at 5:16 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

This will vary from person to person I think. You might have to try different things.

Is there anything you've been wanting to learn or try out?

I get a great high from surfing. Skateboarding is another one.

I personally find running and cycling to be much too boring for me....I like the skill-based challenges that those sports provide. But this is what works for me personally. Also an adrenaline rush is a great way to beat stress for me.
posted by christiehawk at 5:19 PM on January 31, 2014

Bikram yoga. Combines an intense workout with the anxiety-relieving quiet of yoga. It saved me.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 5:20 PM on January 31, 2014

I htink of exercise as effective medicine for my anxiety. What was helpful to me was

- doing a LOT of it, so doing something that was excercise-y for 45-60 minutes every other day (4.0 mph walking on treadmill, fast biking on stationary bike, laps in the pool)
- doing something I liked enough to want to do it
- before I really got on the "I like doing this" I'd ply myself into getting to the gym with an ipad full of teevee or other stuff that I wouldn't watch at home (likewise really good soaps and whatever for my gym locker)
- I found that swimming exhausted me so much that if I swam about a mile or so every other day I was almost too tired to be anxious
- make sure you eat enough that you are not giving yourself other food/nutrition problems with an exercise routine, maybe have some post-workout snack as an incentive

I never had really horrible anxiety, just run of the mill stuff which gave me problems with insomnia and etc. Having a routine that got me out of the house, had me doing something I enjoyed, with some sort of positive feedback loop, was really useful.
posted by jessamyn at 5:25 PM on January 31, 2014

I found joining a running group incredibly helpful. It combines a good cardio workout with social interaction.

It can be addictive though... I intended to just get out of the house a few nights a week, since I had a new baby, but I just kept at it and now I run marathons.
posted by barnoley at 6:14 PM on January 31, 2014

I'm not super-duper anxious or depressed, but anything repetitive, that I can get into the meditative rhythm of it, helps me. So does anything that gets me outside. Bicycling, in all of its many forms, hits both of those for me. I would imagine rowing/kayaking and walking/running, especially on trails, would hit those buttons for a lot of people as well.

And, as others have said, the best exercise is the one that you do.
posted by box at 6:25 PM on January 31, 2014

There's a significant body of research that suggests being outside in nature helps with depression. For me, that's walking and biking. For others, it's running. But anything you can do surrounded by trees and ground the sky should be helpful.
posted by JackBurden at 6:47 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've thought of myself as athletic most of my life but as I've gotten older I began to realize I wasn't really achieving a high level of fitness even though I ride my bike most every day and dance frequently. In my fifties now, I have to up my game if I'm going to be well and fit for the next fifty years +.
I don't like going to gyms really. They seem monotonous to me and going out to classes usually involves driving and schedules or biking at night, so that's never really worked either.
I tried barefoot running for some months then started getting knee signals that this wasn't working out, so back to square one.
I realized there were a lot of people giving free lessons on the Intertubes for physical fitness. I began surfing Youtube looking for kettlebell lessons first, a great way to do weight lifting at home and get really fit. I found this site www.fitnessblender.com and highly recommend them. The two trainers give free fitness sessions in a range of methods like Tabata high intensity, Yoga, stretching, Pilates, kettlebell, jump rope, you name it. Just follow along for a session and before you know it you're pushing your limits.
I try to do a rotating pattern of kettlebell, Pilates, yoga, and high intensity, plus I still ride my bike and dance. So, check it out. You can do it all at home. Lots of free lessons to be had.
posted by diode at 7:27 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a counter, running/walking/hiking make me more anxious and I loathe them - I dislike outside (and the climate where I live is rarely conducive to pleasant exercise) and the chance of injury is unacceptably high for me. But yoga, or some other form of stretch/hold/breathe style exercise does wonders - there is enough change that I don't get bored and I have to be mindful of my body to prevent injury, and really focus on holding the position properly and checking in with my body. Weights, when I've done them, have been good as well. A similar focus on form and constantly changing what you're doing.

Next up I want to try swimming with something to listen to - historically it's been too boring for me to stick with and physically uncomfortable for me in the same way the outdoors is. A much lower risk of injury as well. I am wondering if mindfulness will help me with the boredom.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:52 PM on January 31, 2014

Try different teachers to see if you like slow/calming or vigorous/challenging type.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 8:48 PM on January 31, 2014

IMO, ambulatory movement. Just walking is enough - no need to run or have a performance goal. If you don't want to walk around the block, go for a walk from A to B, or to/from a train station. It just has to be long enough to promote a (positive) physiological change.
posted by 2ears1mouth0brain at 10:10 PM on January 31, 2014

for me it was dancing class that helped with relieving my anxiety & depression. Pick a class with music you like. Dancing with other people in the room- in a not too serious environment is pretty therapeutic. Its worked out well for me to schedule classes into 5 days of my week & not think about- whether I want to go or not- and just go. Sweating and forgetting your worries is important. The goal no matter what you do is to clear you mind- I find dance requires my dance to pay close attention and there's no time for me to worry or brood. I now have such a rhythm that if I'm late for class- it doesn't faze me- my goal is to clear my mind- and fun is also guaranteed.
posted by outdoorslady at 10:19 PM on January 31, 2014

Running on its own is boring.
You need to run with a goal in mind.

For example, my main running goal for 2014 is to complete the Eiger ultra trail.

Right now, I'm capable of running 10km. But that race is the motivation that inspires me to lace up my shoes & head out the door.
posted by lahersedor at 10:42 PM on January 31, 2014

Adding to the choir of "the exercise you'll enjoy." Anecdotally I was quite surprised by how much I liked lifting. Very effective mindfulness focus.
posted by PMdixon at 11:06 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Swimming. Has metered breathing/pranayama built right in! :)

I just learned to swim after an injury so the accomplishment aspect is also helpful. Took a LOT to get me to my first indoor pool (several AskMe posts were helpful in getting up some nerve - like this one) Also I am lucky for having easy free or cheap access to excellent pools in my area - those may be limits so I will echo that the exercise you do is the best!
posted by NikitaNikita at 1:38 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Dance. Any intense cardio set to music, like Zumba, Hip hop, aerobics, U-Jam. Also spin
posted by gt2 at 2:39 AM on February 1, 2014

Walking is very helpful for my depression. I think it's because I'm moving myself through my environment under my own power, head up, looking around, hearing the birds and the other sounds of life around me, feeling the air on my skin, at a pace that lets me — encourages me — to notice things around me that I wouldn't notice if I were moving more quickly.
posted by Lexica at 10:11 AM on February 1, 2014

YMMV: Wile I have suffered from depression I have not suffered from anxiety.
Running and walking are probably the best as a general rule, but they can be boring and reinforce loneliness, but I have found really great comfort in competitive sport.

Personal experience warning : nearly three years ago I was recovering by graduation and social stress induced depression, I was already over the most difficult part, but I was mostly friendless and by no stretch of imagination happy. At the local CON I was handed a leaflet for a lightsaber fighting class and the times for free trials. Showing up was the best thing I ever did.
It's physical exercise with all the benefits that brings, but set in fun environment, the comradeship, the helping each other out, leaning new stuff, but what really did it is the light-hearted competitiveness, learning my own strength, learning that I am not worthless but practice and never giving up is a really a thing, I can get better physically and mentally, I learned jump in and try and even if I literally loose the battle I can try and try and try again.
We end each lesson with a quick fire round of saber fighting, and the adrenalin rush is enough to make the shy geeky me learn to be sociable and go to the pub and make new friends afterwards.

It make me happy in the best possible way. If I skip a week for any reason I get cranky, so I try never to do that.

It also made me stronger and more determined at my work and in life, and help me have the confidence to nail the latest job interview.
Unfortunately it is for a job on the over side of the world, and will have to say goodbye to my clan, but I am determined to find some other friendly competitive sport.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 2:23 PM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with "something you will stick to" but will add that for me, this means there is a level of accountability if I don't.

I go to the boxing gym most mornings before work. I really hate getting out of bed, and I love staying up late at night. But if I can't go, I need to call my coach to tell him. This keeps me pretty honest -- if I didn't have to answer to anyone, oh man the excuses I could concoct! I also chose a gym very close to me (even in the worst bit of polar vortex, I still had to concede that I was able to walk there, and did so), and even partially chose my current workplace based on proximity (yes, this is a step too far for most people).

(I also, y'know, enjoy boxing and want to go so I keep improving, which may seem like a no-brainer, but so many people I know have lapsed gym memberships and abandoned running shoes because they never actually liked those things in the first place and eventually gave up.)

I don't think I've really suffered from depression, but I was in a pretty shitty place when I started training there -- working from home in a new city with a partner who travels a lot -- and going to a place where I was surrounded by other people and had actual conversations most days was really good for me. Because I also have people scrutinizing for my performance in the gym, it also forced me to adopt much better sleeping and eating habits, which no doubt helped my general wellbeing too.

Anxiety I do have, and this definitely helps. Literally starting the day being punched in the face (yeah, this isn't for everyone) means not very much else can phase me, and being more tired at night stops me from getting in my head so much when I go to bed.

So I really recommend considering martial arts or boxing/kickboxing. They offer a high level of accountability, as most instructors will call you out if you don't attend. You get to be totally rubbish at them to start with, and improve in a very structured way. You get lots of ego-boosting pats on the back when you do improve (there really aren't many environments in adult life where people will so frequently and sincerely tell you you're doing a great job just for working hard and doing something competently). You get the benefits of a solo pursuit (improving at your own pace, competing only with your own previous bests) with that of team activities (you're still training with lots of other people and it's typically very social). And they're just super fun -- punching things is fun, learning to do crazy jumping spinning kicks is fun, dressing up in kickboxing shorts or gis is fun, breaking pieces of wood in half is fun, earning belts is fun. There is also pretty much a martial art or fight sport out there for every taste and price range.
posted by retrograde at 7:34 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

FWIW my yoga teacher often says in class that stretching your armpits is a good way to relieve some depression.
posted by gillianr at 7:16 AM on February 2, 2014

« Older good stops on the way to DC?   |   What was this occular disturbance I experienced? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.