When you feel anxious or stressed out, a peaceful walk in nature or a gentle yoga session is sometimes the best prescription. Those activities help you relax and feel less anxious by activating your parasympathetic, the component of your nervous system that slows things down and promotes a sense of calm.
Studies show that low-intensity exercise like yoga and walking outdoors lowers the stress hormone cortisol and has a calming effect, but don’t underestimate the power of more intense exercise to help you feel calmer. Paradoxically, a recent study shows high-intensity interval training could help you manage stress and anxiety.
High-Intensity Interval Training for Stress Management
At first glance, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) might seem like what you don’t need when you’re worried or anxious due to the way intense exercise hypes you up. HIIT training is one of the best ways to boost your heart rate and improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness. Rather than exercising at a steady pace, you work out at a nearly all-out effort for a brief period, recover, and repeat. By switching back and forth between active and recovery intervals, you can exercise at a higher intensity for brief periods of time. Over time, you develop greater cardiovascular fitness but also the ability to tap into anaerobic energy systems. This can make you a better sprinter, jumper, and enhance your muscle’s ability to generate power.
However, recent research finds that HIIT training could help you tackle stress and anxiety too. For the study, researchers asked adult women, all under the age of 45, to take part in an exercise session. Beforehand, they used a questionnaire to determine their level of anxiety at baseline. Then, the subjects launched into a 33-minute workout. The session consisted of either a moderate-intensity or high-intensity exercise session. Afterward, the researchers measured the subjects’ level of anxiety at different times during recovery, 5 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes, and 90 minutes.
The good news? Regardless of what type of exercise the women did, their anxiety level decreased over time, but the decline in anxiety was greatest when the women worked out at a high intensity at 30, 60, and 90 minutes after the workouts. The high-intensity sessions had more of a calming effect than low-intensity ones.
How High-Intensity Interval Training May Reduce Anxiety
Researchers aren’t sure how high-intensity interval training eases anxiety, but they have some theories. The endorphin release that comes with intense exercise is one possible explanation. Endorphins are peptide hormones released by the brain and nervous system that attach to opiate receptors in the brain. When endorphins bind to these receptors, it reduces pain and calms anxiety. In fact, scientists believe endorphin release explains the runner’s high some runners get after running for a while.
Studies show that HIIT training stimulates endorphin release too. In fact, research suggests that endorphins could be a factor in boosting the motivation to exercise. When you experience the calmness of endorphin release, you’re motivated to get that feeling again by lacing up your exercise shoes and launching into a workout.
High-intensity interval training may also tame anxiety by distracting people from their worries. It’s hard to think about what’s bothering you when your mind is focused on exercise and recovery intervals. Plus, training intensely builds confidence and stronger self-esteem, which can be beneficial for taming stress and anxiety.
Not all studies concur, though. A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found eight weeks of high-intensity interval training didn’t improve symptoms of anxiety in women but improved depressive symptoms. At the very least, it looks like HIIT has some benefits for mood if you do it in moderation.
Don’t Overdo It
A vigorous workout may be just what the doctor ordered when you’re feeling anxious, but don’t overdo it. Stick to one or two HIIT sessions per week and space them a few days apart. Doing high-intensity workouts too often can boost stress hormones that worsen feelings of anxiety. Recover for at least 48-76 hours before attempting another HIIT session. It’s best to tackle high-intensity training sessions in small doses with two days of recovery time in between.
The effect of high-intensity exercise may vary with the individual and their mental state on that day. As Brenda Rea, M.D. PT, FD, professor of family and preventive medicine at Loma Linda University points out, your sympathetic or “fight-or-flight” nervous system may already be in overdrive if you’re stressed out and anxious. HIIT training hypes up your sympathetic nervous system even more short term. For some people, vigorous exercise may worsen anxiety short term.
Be careful of the time of day you do a high-intensity interval routine, too. Before bedtime might not be the best time if you’re hyped up short term and have difficulty sleeping. Restful sleep is too important to miss out on. Listen to your body and know when it’s appropriate to do an intense workout and when taking it easy would be more therapeutic.
The Bottom Line
High-intensity interval training is effective for improving cardiovascular health and anaerobic fitness, too. But it may also be beneficial for managing stress and relieving anxiety. We still need more research into the effect of HIIT on mood as some studies conflict, but what matters is how it affects you. Try it and see how intense exercise affects your mood and ability to manage stress. Then, adjust your workouts accordingly. Exercise, in general, is a mood lifter. So, regardless of what type you do, keep moving your body! Also, balance harder workout with relaxing movements, like yoga, stretching, or a low-intensity walk outdoors. It all helps.
ScienceDaily.com. “High-Intensity Exercise Best Way To Reduce Anxiety, University Of Missouri Study Finds”
University Of Missouri-Columbia. “High-Intensity Exercise Best Way To Reduce Anxiety, University Of Missouri Study Finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 July 2003. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/07/030715091511.htm.
Hawaii Med J. 2010 Mar; 69(3): 70–71.
Furthermore.equinox.com. “Is too much HIIT making you anxious?”
ScienceDaily.com. “HIIT releases endorphins in the brain”
Front Psychiatry. 2019; 10: 661.Published online 2019 Sep 12. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00661.
Indian J Psychiatry. 2013 Jul; 55(Suppl 3): S405–S408.doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.116315.
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