Exercise of all types is a good mood booster and anxiety reliever. Ask people how they feel after a workout, and most will say they feel calmer and less stressed. The mood-elevating effects of exercise come partially from the endorphins released during a workout. These natural hormone-like chemicals the brain produces are thought to be responsible for the “runner’s high”, the feeling of peace and calm, that runners feel after running a long distance. But what’s the best exercise for relieving anxiety and for boosting mood? According to one study, it may be yoga.
Is Yoga the Best Exercise for Anxiety and Depression?
Doctors often recommend that patients who feel anxious or depressed slip on their walking shoes and take a brisk walk. Walking, especially outdoors in nature, is a proven mood lifter. Who doesn’t feel better after they get up off the couch and start moving around? But yoga may be better than even walking for lifting the mood.
Researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine compared the benefits of walking vs. yoga for reducing anxiety and depression. They divided participants into two groups. One group practiced yoga for an hour three days a week, while the other group walked for the same period of time.
To measure the benefits they used a special type of brain scan that measured levels of a brain chemical called GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter that’s reduced in people who suffer from mood disorders or feel depressed or anxious.
The results? The participants who did yoga felt less stressed and anxious and more optimistic than the group who walked. They also had higher levels of the brain neurotransmitter GABA after the study. Medications used to treat anxiety and depression boost GABA levels, and yoga seems to do that naturally.
Yoga for Anxiety Has Benefits over Walking
It’s not surprising that yoga offers mood-boosting benefits. Many people who are anxious and stressed breathe more shallowly. Yoga encourages deep breathing and emphasizes control of breath. Yoga is also meditative and directs a participant’s thoughts towards the present rather than on the past or future. This helps to reduce obsessive worrying that contributes to anxiety and depression. With yoga, a person gains greater control over their body and their thoughts.
Yoga also reduces cortisol levels, a hormone that’s been dubbed the “stress hormone,” because it rises during periods of stress. High cortisol levels suppress immunity, increase insulin resistance and promote fat storage in the deeper layers of the abdomen around organs where it can do the most harm. Obviously, lowering cortisol levels has multiple benefits for mood – and for overall health.
Exercise for Anxiety: All Types Are Good
All types of exercise boost mood and help to relieve stress, whether it’s taking a walk in nature, running a few miles or doing yoga moves. But with its emphasis on deep breathing and mind and body control, yoga may be one of the best forms of exercise around for relieving stress and anxiety. I have two Yoga videos you may want to try for some stress relief: Yoga Max and Yoga Relax.
The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Volume 16. Number 11. 2010; pages 1145-1152.