Exercise for anxiety disorders: systematic review

Br J Sports Med. 2014 Feb;48(3):187-96. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2012-091287. Epub 2013 Jan 7.


Background: Anxiety disorders are commonly treated with antidepressants and psychological treatments. Some patients may prefer alternative approaches such as exercise.

Objective: To investigate the treatment effects of exercise compared with other treatments for anxiety disorders.

Data sources: Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of exercise interventions for anxiety disorders were identified by searching six online databases (July 2011). A number of journals were also hand searched.

Main results: Eight RCTs were included. For panic disorder: exercise appears to reduce anxiety symptoms but it is less effective than antidepressant medication (1 RCT); exercise combined with antidepressant medication improves the Clinical Global Impression outcomes (1 RCT, p<0.05); exercise combined with occupational therapy and lifestyle changes reduces Beck Anxiety Inventory outcomes (1 RCT, p=0.0002). For social phobias, added benefits of exercise when combined with group cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) were shown (p<0.05). There was no significant difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise groups (1 RCT, p>0.1) with both seeming to reduce anxiety symptoms (1 RCT, p<0.001). It remains unclear as to which type of exercise; moderate to hard or very light to light, is more effective in anxiety reduction (2 RCTs).

Conclusions: Exercise seems to be effective as an adjunctive treatment for anxiety disorders but it is less effective compared with antidepressant treatment. Both aerobic and non-aerobic exercise seems to reduce anxiety symptoms. Social phobics may benefit from exercise when combined with group CBT. Further well-conducted RCTs are needed.

Keywords: Exercise; Physical activity and exercise methodology; Psychology.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adjustment Disorders / therapy
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Anxiety Disorders / therapy*
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods
  • Exercise Therapy / methods*
  • General Practice
  • Humans
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / therapy
  • Occupational Therapy / methods
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Risk Reduction Behavior
  • Selection Bias
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy
  • Stress, Psychological / therapy
  • Young Adult


  • Antidepressive Agents