How physical activity can help with stress and anxiety
Woman stretching

This article is part of a series in collaboration with ParticipACTION. Discover how "Everything gets better when you get active!"


Sometimes, it’s the last thing we feel like doing that’s the very thing we need to do to feel better. Physical activity is an action we can take that can improve and elevate our state of mind in just a few minutes. And although it can take some motivation, getting outside and moving is one of the most significant ways we can maintain and protect our mental health as we face the challenges of our day-to-day lives.

Research suggests that nearly 2.5 million Canadians over the age of 15 experience symptoms of anxiety every year. The pandemic has seen stress and anxiety levels rise in many populations, particularly among parents, women, and frontline workers. And while emotional support is a powerful ally in times of distress, so too is physical activity.

Move more to cope better

The psychological and emotional benefits of physical activity continue to accumulate as more researchers turn their attention to understanding its powerful effects on body and mind. A Swedish study found that engaging in heart-pumping physical activity over the long term can significantly reduce the risk of developing anxiety. The study looked at the habits of cross-country skiers specifically, but the findings support the idea that any form of aerobic activity proves beneficial to staving off anxiety and mental distress.

Happiness is movement

There is nothing worse than feeling stuck. Moving our bodies is one simple way to inject good vibes into a rotten day, week, month or year. Not only does physical activity boost the production of stress-reducing endorphins in our body, but it also promotes the production of happy-making dopamine and serotonin. And a little movement goes a long way: a review of existing literature around happiness and physical activity suggests that moving our bodies for as little as 10-minutes per week is associated with an increase in happiness levels.

Sedentary lifestyles are associated with depression and vice versa

The connection between regular physical movement and a reduced risk of depression is so significant that the American Psychiatric Association lists exercise as a treatment option for depression. In addition, the Canadian Psychological Association endorses regular physical activity as a way to reduce feelings of sadness and loneliness, boost self-esteem and increase feelings of happiness. Studies highlight the fact that physical activity is considered protective of mental health, while a mostly sedentary lifestyle is linked with an increased risk of anxiety and depression.

The trick with breaking the connection between sedentary behaviour and depression is to get moving. And in this respect, the kind of activity you choose may be helpful, too. Aerobic or cardio activity (think a brisk walk that sees you breathing harder) is associated with reducing feelings of depression.

Getting started

To support good mental health over the long term, Canadians should aim to get 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week (that’s roughly 20 minutes a day). Start bringing the mood-lifting benefits of physical activity into your day-to-day slowly. Begin with a five- or 10-minute brisk walk or wheel in the morning or evening, building up your stamina and endurance over the week. The more you enjoy the activity you’re doing, the more likely you’ll repeat the experience, so use your physical activity time – whether it’s five minutes or 15 minutes – as a way to amplify the good vibes. Walking, jogging, yoga, tai chi – even turning on your favourite song and dancing in front of the mirror for five minutes can do wonders for your state of mind! 


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