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Exercise is better than Xanax: How workouts banish worries

exercise and anxiety

Fitness Rx: Working out can yield "clinically significant" reductions in elevated anxiety levels

 

New York Magazine’s recent cover story would have us believe that New Yorkers are having a passionate love affair with Xanax.

And Ahalife’s new jewelry line fetishizes the whole family of anti-anxiety drugs, suggesting we’ve all become pill-poppers in our age of uncertainty.

But here’s something that the anxious masses may need to be reminded of: There’s a large body of evidence that suggests that exercise can be even more effective than prescription drugs when it comes to preventing and easing anxiety.

“Several studies have found the effects of aerobic exercise to be initially similar to those of medication,” explains Jeff Dolgan, an exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch Hotel & Spa in Miami Beach. “However, in the long term, exercise seems to work better.” Especially because over time, your brain becomes resistant to a drug’s effects (but not to spinning).

For example, one study completed at Appalachian State University in 2008 randomly assigned individuals with “high anxiety sensitivity” into exercise and non-exercise groups. The group who exercised reported significantly less anxiety afterwards than the coach-potato set. Another 2008 study conducted at Southern Methodist University found that after a two-week exercise intervention, the participants who exercised had “clinically significant” reductions in their elevated anxiety levels, while the sedentary control group did not.

bad habit necklaces

Wearing one of these charms sold on Ahalife.com won't help with your level of anxiety, but a spin class should

So why does exercise calm our nerves?

Dolgan says several mechanisms may be at play, some of which are physical, like the release of feel-good hormones (endorphins and neurotransmitters), a reduction in inflammation, and the calming effect of a high body temperature. Others are psychological, such as a confidence boost and the distraction from daily worries while you focus on burning calories (and your rockin’ playlist).

To reap the maximum benefits, says Dolgan, you should exercise on a regular basis and at medium-to-high intensity.

“Think of exercise being dosed through your body as a medicine,” he explains. “If you take a medicine today, the effects on your system usually last 18–24 hours. The effects of exercise are similar in that if more than 24 hours go by without stimulating the system, the effects wear off.”

And while most research has focused on aerobic workouts for reducing worry, Dolgan says the most important thing is to find a workout you enjoy so that you’ll be more likely to stick with it. It may be a little bit harder than calling in your prescription to Duane Reade, but you’ll be a happier, healthier person in the long run. —Lisa Elaine Held

Has exercise helped you take the edge off, keep your cool, or stop worrying? Tell us what worked in the Comments, below!

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  1. April 4th, 2012 at 8:03 am

    I really liked this article!

    Whenever I’m stressed I always forget that exercise makes me feel 53.7% better :)

    In fact, after a busy day studying I’m off to do some now.

    Thanks for sharing (alll the way from Australia!) xx

  2. April 4th, 2012 at 10:54 am

    I totally agree. Whenever I wake up with anxiety/panic attacks I grab my sneakers and go for a run. I come back feeling calm and relaxed.

  3. April 4th, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Mental wellness is the #1 reason why I work out – above physical health, above what I look like in my jeans. It keeps my head on straight, and it keeps me from popping a pill.

  4. April 4th, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    sorry but this is TOTAL hogwash. nothing takes away my panic, PTSD replays, and heart racing mania like xanax. it’s instant, short-acting so i don’t have to feel drugged, or groggy but it is NOT addictive. it’s just the only thing i’ve found that works. i bet the author of this is a skinny bitch who all but gets orgasms off the “thrill” of a workout. for me, working out is akin to torture. this whole article just infuriated me. sure, working out will help me lose weight and that will reduce my stress of my obesity BUT to say it would be a better replacement for my beloved benzos? HOGWASH. i challenge any doctor to prove me wrong. bring it.

  5. April 6th, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    While I don’t think this is the remedy and prescription for all people dealing with depression and anxiety, for me I know exercise is an incredible alternative to medication.

    Perhaps people who enjoy sweating, exercise and know what their favorite thing to do at the gym are more likely to reap the benefits. For me personally I try to start off my day working out and I know I will feel better for the rest of the day. Going to the gym has become my own form of therapy

  6. April 29th, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Xanax and exercise!

  7. August 8th, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    To those of you who are enlightened on this subject thank you for your comments and I am happy that you like myself have experienced the truth of this article.

    The research is strong on this topic.

    To those of you that disagree…. i have a news flash: Dr’s dont typically complete research or learn alternative medicine techniques in med school and if you had a good one they would get you away from xanex asap and treat you’re whole body instead of your symptoms. Enjoy continuing to line the packets of pharmacuetical companies!

    Thank you

  8. October 9th, 2012 at 2:17 am

    Today many people are suffring from Depression and Sub-health because of heavey work.We must keep health well and
    do excuse is a good way.
    I have a website to introduce Chinese medicine ways to keep healty.

  9. December 4th, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    This is a very interesting and educational article. I think easing anxiety via exercise has a tremendous amount to do with breathing and using that to your advantage for calming and focus. Yoga and meditation are great tools that help breathing and anxiety. The Mind and body are also fully engaged in breathing during a swim class or doing laps, both incredibly calming but hard work. Thanks for the insight and stats.

  10. December 7th, 2012 at 3:08 am

    Interesting. For most class of people who spend with a busy schedule,and superstitiously anxious this works out. But for people with a normal routine simple ways like meditation, gardening, a walk might be just enough. HogaBoga after all every one has their own way to get relieved.

  11. March 25th, 2014 at 1:18 am

    Am a pill hater and my wife too hate them.

    This post has brought a great beam of light for those who think only pills can cure.

    For me eating healthy diet and doing some physical activity will work to fight all diseases. (including skin)

  12. July 15th, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    Ever since I started working out three months ago I noticed I barely take my Xanax anymore I don’t even think about it! I used to take it at least once a day maybe twice!

  13. August 12th, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    I have a busy schedule and hardly get time for exercises. Therefore I have decided to take stairs instead of elevators and also trying for an active sex life. It helps :)

  14. August 14th, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Very true. At CFS, we see people reduce or stop taking their meds sometimes 2 week into it, because they no longer feel the need.

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