Depression and Anxiety From Your Workout

Thinking about using exercise to relieve depression and anxiety? Good idea, but, make sure you read this first as exercise could do more damage than good. Imagine putting all that effort into exercise, but it makes your symptoms worse…

Firstly, you might be wondering what qualifies me to talk about this topic, good question. Let me introduce myself. I’m Ben and I work as the fitness co-ordinator at one of the UK’s leading mental health hospitals. The reason I’m writing this blog is that I have come across a lot of people the last 3 years that lack this knowledge, it has been detrimental to their depression and anxiety. I’m also including a simple technique I have learnt in the past 3 years that decreases your symptoms, which you can start using straight away.

As you have probably been told, exercise is good for relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety. Most doctors will tell you its good for your ‘hormone balance’, but what does this even mean? And is it actually doing anything positive?

Well the answer is yes it can (thankfully!), but only if you get it right. What the doctors don’t seem to tell you is if you get it wrong it can be quite detrimental and actually make you feel worse, imagine putting time and effort into exercise when your already feeling like crap and then it making you feel worse! I have come across this many times and it really upsets me. But what’s great is when I teach someone the simple techniques to getting it right, and how helpful exercise can really be.

It’s actually really frustrating that we are not being given the simple information to getting it right, the good news is that it’s incredibly simple. There’s a technique and exercise formula to getting it right, which health professionals and doctors don’t seem to be telling us. I’m not saying they are deliberately withholding information from us. Perhaps I’m one of the first people to come across it as I’m seeing exactly what works first hand whilst working with so many people suffering with depression and anxiety.

And this is what the doctors don’t tell us…

I’m going to keep this as simple as possible. So if you look at exercise as a stress on the body, it becomes incredibly clear and simple. First of all understand the roll of cortisol (a stress hormone). When your body is stressed due to depression and anxiety the body slowly secretes more and more of this hormone, over time this makes your symptoms a lot worse as it effects the function of the brain.

When you exercise (remember exercise is a stress on the body) this means it also increases cortisol. So it’s clear, exercise can make you feel worse due to the effect it has on stress hormones, but only when it is used incorrectly.

But there is a very easy way around this, using the correct exercise technique known as ‘flexible exercise’. Using short moderate intensity workouts (around 10-30 minutes long). This increases cortisol, as all exercise does, but, and this is a big ‘but’, only momentary increase. As its a short burst at the correct intensity, it doesn’t over stress an already stressed body. Once the body quickly recovers, your cortisol levels actually decrease as your body is becoming more efficient at dealing with the stress exercise causes. This type of exercise is known as ‘flexible exercise’.

Im not saying everyone should exercise this way, just people that are experiencing depression and anxiety.

Heres a little trick you can try straight away and start using the idea of ‘flexible exercise’…

Try 10 minutes of exercise every morning when you get up, maybe just start with some squats and jogging on the spot. I have seen this sort of short, daily flexible exercise help many clients I have worked with. There’s a lot more to it than this such as timing and exercise selection, but this is a good starting point.


What to do next…

Flexible exercise is something I call a ‘Lifestyle Trigger’. These are small changes and adaptions you can make to your lifestyle that trigger a positive response to your hormone harmony and help you to relieve depression and anxiety. If you want to learn more about flexible exercise and other lifestyle triggers check out my free lifestyle triggers email series here. 


  1. Chloe says:

    Thanks Ben for this article, I couldn’t seem to find any definitive advice online or from doctors. I’ve had anxiety for a few years, am taking medication which helps, but I’ve ended up with a couple of bad episodes a year. I’ve never had a proper exercise regimen, and I work on a computer all day long, and from home, which doesn’t help. So this year, after my latest bout of anxiety, I’ve decided to kick my own butt and hit the gym (weight training mainly). On week 2 my anxiety was back, which was surprising to me as I don’t usually have another episode quite so soon – and quite upsetting as I was hoping exercise may be the magic bullet I was looking for, or at least would help. Anxiety is not as bad as other times though, probably because the exercise means I’m sleeping better etc. But it’s still very unpleasant. So I’m curious to see if I need to change to more gentle or shorter bouts of exercise for now, or stick to my routine and my body will eventually realise there is no danger and calm down. Anyone else had that experience?

    • Hope says:

      Chloe, I can identify with your story.. I’m currently going thru the phase where I have exercise anxiety.. I’ve had it at other times in my life too. I love a variety of workouts, but if I feel I’m being judged or competed with it brings on anxiety and no matter what mind over matter I try it doesn’t last long. If I’m worried about getting injured, because it happens, I get freaked out too. Any help out there?

      • Joshua says:

        RE: Any help out there?

        I identify with these experiences as well. For most of my life (which involves a lot of anxiety, rational and otherwise) exercise and nutrition helped, but it appears as I have gotten older (I’m now 37), my body and mind have changed and exercise now makes me feel worse. Whenever my heart rate increases for any reason, my anxiety goes up, I suffer intrusive negative thoughts and vivid flash backs to bad memories and anger over past trauma. This started about 5 years ago and then got much much worse last year. I have been studying myself and my habits and taking meticulous notes in conversation with doctors, counselors, psychiatrists and family and as of July I finally have the science to back up some conclusions about the relationship between my mind and my body. I’ve learned that the interplay of cortisol and seratonin are essential to my personal mental health.

        1) I have an above average metabolism (BMR 1799); this makes losing weight a little easier I hear, but I also seem to metabolize seratonin faster than I produce it.

        2) I suffer from a genetic L-methylfolate nutritional deficiency which means I lack some of the necessary ingredients in my body to synthesize more seratonin.

        3) Protein inhibits seratonin synthesis and I used to maintain strict vegetarian discipline, including various proteins in all of my meals to prevent deficiency on that score.

        4) When I exercise, my heart rate goes up, my cortisol levels go up, I burn away precious seratonin reserves and my anxiety and depression worsen, then if I eat healthy protein rich meals as part of that program, seratonin restoration is prevented and Things. Stay. Bad.

        It took many, many, many months to sort out the actual patterns here and back it up with research. But, unfortunately, the simple way to feel better (which actually works like a charm):
        1) don’t exercise at all
        2) eat lots of starch and minimal protein to stimulate seratonin production and keep inhibition to a minimum…

        …means I’ve gained 40lbs this year so far and could easily make myself physically sick if I keep at it. This must change.

        So I am glad I found this web site and the suggestion of starting with a 10 minute workout to keep the cortisol increase minimal and temporary. And glad to see professional conclusions about the interplay of exercise, cortisol, and depression that match my intuitions and experience.

        Were I to offer any advice, it would be:
        1) I recommend the book “The Seratonin Power Diet.” I have the Kindle version. I’ve learned is that for those of us more susceptible to anxiety and depression than most, nutrition and exercise may be more complicated than popular information on dieting and exercise suggest. This book is a very different approach from most.

        2) I used to pride myself on my Mind Over Matter approach to handling anxiety, until it stopped working entirely. I’ve learned the mind/matter connection involves a concert of interconnected cognitive, chemical, mechanical, and behavioral processes and to rely on the cognitive strategies for mental health balance is insufficient when there are difficulties in the other three areas. At least for me.

        I would not wish this experience of mine on anyone, not even my worst enemy, it’s terrible. I hope this text finds the reader well. Best wishes.

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