Physical activity can relieve stress and may also improve anxiety and depression symptoms. Experts think it does this by both promoting resilience and giving a person a break from their stress, boosting their mood.

Although researchers know exercise can improve stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms, they do not fully understand why. It is unclear exactly how exercise boosts mood and promotes calmness, but they have theories about its effects.

Some evidence indicates that exercise increases resilience, making a person more equipped to deal with challenging situations.

Exercise recommendations for stress reduction are the same as those for promoting general health: 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. Brisk walking, jogging, and bicycling are examples of this type of exercise.

Read on to learn more about how exercise can improve mood, which exercises to try, the risks involved, and more.

A person performing a shoulder stretch before exercising.Share on Pinterest
FreshSplash/Getty Images

Researchers are studying the mechanisms connecting exercise and stress. There are two main theories:

Increases emotional resilience to stress

One explanation says that exercise may increase emotional resilience to stress.

In a 2014 study, researchers looked at 111 participants and compared the effects of a stressful task with those of a non-stressful task. They also analyzed differences between people who exercised regularly and people who were sedentary.

The results indicated that stress caused a smaller decline in positive mood among regular exercisers. The sedentary individuals experienced a larger decline in mood. This suggests that regular exercise may increase resilience, helping people cope with difficult situations.

However, it is important to note that the study did not show a direct causal link between stress levels and exercise. Other factors are likely at play — for example, a person with a chronic health condition that forces them to be sedentary may have higher stress levels overall.

Despite this, lower stress levels may mean a person is less likely to experience certain health problems. Older research from 2013 notes that 75–90% of visits to a primary care doctor are for stress-related conditions, such as:

Gives a person a break from stress

Another theory is called the “time-out” hypothesis. This posits that exercise reduces stress by providing a break from it. For example, a person may lower their stress levels at work by going for a brisk walk on their lunch break.

Researchers in an older 1998 study tested the time-out hypothesis in a small group of females with anxiety and found that exercising caused lower anxiety levels.

A 2021 study of high school students had similar findings. Researchers found that a 10-minute exercise break during a stressful exam week resulted in lower stress levels and improved cognitive function.

Many studies on exercise for stress relief focus on aerobic activity. This does not mean that other types of exercise, such as weight training, are not effective — they are just less widely studied.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people should aim to get 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week.

People who experience work-related stress may wish to divide their daily exercise into shorter sessions. They can perform these before work, during a lunch break, or after work.

Many physical activities fall into the category of aerobic exercise, but the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests brisk walking. A person can choose another activity they enjoy, such as:

  • swimming
  • dancing
  • gardening
  • bicycling

Researchers have investigated how exercise can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.


The authors of a 2020 review looked at research that explored the effects of exercise on anxiety. They found that physical activity can significantly decrease anxiety symptoms, and they noted that it may also reduce symptoms of other mental health conditions.

The authors stated that exercise may aid in treating anxiety disorders through a broad spectrum of benefits.


In a 2018 review, researchers looked at studies investigating the effects of exercise on depression.

They found that for some people, physical activity may be just as effective as other first-line depression treatments. Additionally, the physical health benefits of exercise may improve overall well-being.

While exercise will not be a suitable replacement for treatments such as medication and therapy for many people, it can be a useful addition to an existing treatment plan.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), evidence strongly indicates that exercise is safe for most people. Although it usually does not cause problems, it has the following risks:

To exercise safely, the HHS recommends:

  • Selecting physical activities that are appropriate for a person’s fitness level. Activities such as walking, gardening, and riding a stationary bike have low injury rates, while running and contact sports have higher injury rates.
  • Starting slowly and then gradually increasing the intensity and duration. A person is more likely to get injured if they start doing too much strenuous exercise too quickly. They should increase the duration and intensity gradually, and they may find it helpful to speak with a doctor or personal trainer for advice.
  • Using appropriate gear and sporting equipment. For certain activities, using gear such as a helmet and goggles can help prevent injuries. People should make sure their equipment fits properly.
  • Choosing safe environments. If a person lives in a warm climate, they may want to exercise in the early morning or evening to avoid the day’s highest temperatures. People can also stay safe by avoiding high traffic areas.

People who are new to exercise may want to contact a doctor before starting a workout routine. This is especially important if they have preexisting health conditions.

A doctor can provide advice about the amount and type of exercise that is suitable. Additionally, if a person experiences ongoing pain or injury, they should contact a doctor.

Researchers theorize that exercise can reduce stress levels and improve depression and anxiety symptoms by promoting resilience and giving people a break from stress.

People can try short bouts of exercise during work or study. The CDC recommends people aim to do 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week.

Although the HHS notes that physical activity is safe for most people, there are a few risks. If a person is new to exercise or has preexisting health conditions, they should contact a doctor before starting a new workout plan.