If you suffer from anxiety or depression, here’s some good news: Mounting evidence supports exercise as an effective treatment for clinical anxiety disorders as well as more generalized anxiety. It’s also being touted as beneficial if you have mild-to-moderate depression; a study by Canadian scientists George Mammen, MSc and Guy Faulkner, PhD, titled Physical Activity and the Prevention of Depression, suggests even low levels of physical activity, such as walking for relatively brief periods each day, can ward off and help prevent depression.

This is good news indeed, since according to the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, approximately 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Doctors are looking for treatment alternatives to prescription medication, and patients are interested in side effect-free, self-help tools.

So how does exercise help you if you are anxious or depressed?

While many mysteries have yet to be solved, experts believe exercise eases anxiety and depression by releasing feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters and endorphins), by reducing immune system chemicals that can worsen depression and by increasing body temperature, which can provide a calming effect. A study by Dr. Andrea Dunn at the Cooper Research Institute in Dallas, Texas, found patients who did the equivalent of 35 minutes’ walking, six days per week, experienced a 47% reduction in their level of depression. This study suggests that as little as three hours of regular exercise each week reduces the symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression as effectively as many antidepressants.

There’s more: Other studies indicate that people who exercise regularly tend to have higher self-esteem and increased confidence. The Mayo Clinic agrees; in Exercise: 7 benefits of regular exercise, the clinic suggests that exercise can help us relax and feel happier and better about ourselves.

Perhaps most exciting of all is this: Exercise gives you a new tool to use alone or along with other forms of treatment such as medication, counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness. If you think you’re experiencing anxiety and/or depression, or you’re taking medication but want to consider new or additional treatment options, begin with a visit to your doctor.

Physical activity is good for all of us, and today is a perfect day to get started with this 8-Week Walking Program I created for ParticipACTION. You might also consider these tips:

  • Determine the activities you enjoy most or would like to try. When you enjoy something, you’re more likely to stick with it.
  • Meet with your doctor to discuss your goals and to obtain his or her support. If exercise will be part of your treatment plan for anxiety or depression, talk about frequency, duration, intensity and how best to monitor your progress.
  • Establish realistic goals and develop a plan to achieve them.
  • Schedule time to exercise and hold yourself accountable.
  • Identify and understand the barriers that stand in your way or hold you back. For example, if putting on a swimsuit makes you feel self-conscious and keeps you from the aquafit classes you thought you’d enjoy, find another genre of group fitness class – perhaps yoga, walking or spinning.
  • Understand that we all have setbacks from time to time and be sure to reward your progress at regular intervals.

Learn more from the Canadian Mental Health Association: Fast Facts about Mental Illness.