The Role of Cardiovascular Exercise in Anxiety Management

The benefits of cardio exercise have been long touted for it’s contribution to ones physical health. However, let’s cast our attention beyond the benefits of an improved metabolism, lean limbs and a a healthy heart and delve into what happens neurologically; within your brain, on your hormones, your mood and your mental health.

Incorporating cardio activity into your lifestyle is hugely advantageous to managing and supporting your mental health (Anxiety and Depression Association for America). Step away from any ideal self image that cardio exercise needs to be training for a marathon, and rather lean into the knowledge that cardio has tremendous benefits when carried out in short bursts of 20-30 minutes of moderate exercise. The 'runners high’ is backed by neuroscience beyond the pleasurable rush of endorphins and primatial instincts for hunting and creating connection (McGonigal, 2019). It can play a significant role in maintaining homeostasis - keeping all your internal systems balanced by increasing endocannibinoid activity, which affects the function of your central nervous system, gastrointestinal system, hormones, skeletal bones, immune system, metabolism and muscular system.

Meyers et al (2019) found that endocannibinoid activity increased after 20-30 minutes of moderate exercise. In an earlier study by Myers et al (2016) there was a further increase in endocannibinoid activity where exercise was prescribed to the participant rather than that which they preferred. Perhaps having the accountability towards a coach increased the sense of reward because of being externally acknowledged for physical achievement and having the direction of a teacher. Continuous moderate activities such as jogging, walking on an incline on the treadmill, cycling and outdoor hiking were the most beneficial in stimulating the reward system and improving neuroscience. The same benefits were not reaped from slow walking or exhaustive fast running (Raichlen et al, 2013). Within the brain the amygdala and pre frontal cortex help to regulate the stress response, which are rich in endocannibinoid’s; and as this activity becomes stimulated through cardio exercise there is a decrease in anxiety, increasing in dopamine (promotes feelings of optimism) and an increase in state contentment (McGonigal, 2019).

Cardio exercise is also a natural way to sense into our primatial ability to flee from stress and to be strong and agile enough if we were to confront danger as we prepare for a fight. When we engage in cardio exercise we create familiarity with what is going on inside our body, through interoception; as the heart beat can be sensed against our rib cage and heard pounding in our ears, as our breath becomes shorter and more exasperated and we sense warmth in our body even in the depths of a chilled wintery day.

In the familiarity, in the rhythm, in one of our gifts from nature and our body, we find an external expression of a sense of achievement and and in this we create the deeper sense of knowing that our body has a wonderful innate ability to manage anxiety and stress.

Anxiety can create a feeling of being helpless against the thoughts and sensations induced by the sensations of anxiety, but movement is one of our most natural ways of being able to create a state change, as we bring life to our limbs we create new neural pathways, stimulating different aspects of our brain. Combine this with the sensation of achievement and overcoming a physical task, we may be one stride closer to sensing and experiencing ourselves as a whole system, which is able to create a sense of positive state change for ourselves.


Anxiety and Depression Management, Anxiety and Depression Association for America -

K. McGonigal (2019); The Joy of Movement; how exercise helps us to find happiness, hope, connection and courage; Penguin Random House.

J. Meyer, K Koltyn, A. Stegner, JS Kim, D. Cook (2016); Influence of exercise intensity for improving depressed mood in depression: a dose response study; Behaviour Therapy; -

J. Meyer; K. Crombie; D. Cook; C. Hillard; K. Koltyn (2019); Serum Endocannabinoid and Mood Changes after Exercise in Major Depressive Disorders; Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise; -

D. Raichlan et al, A. Foster, A.Seillier, A. Giuffrida, G. Gerdeman (2013); Exercise Induced cannabinoid singling is modulated by intensity. European Journal of Applied Physiology;

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