This Is the Best Exercise for Anxiety—and It’s Absolutely Free

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Photo: Getty Images/Gonalo Barriga
Workouts have so much to offer: Yoga "creates space" in the body, Pilates works the tiniest nooks of your body, and HIIT gets your heart racing. Exercise works wonders for your mental health, but when we asked a psychologist to name the absolute best exercise for anxiety, he said one outpaces all the rest: running.

"If you choose the right activities, exercise can be a distraction that allows the part of our brain that works in anxiety to cool off," says Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and executive director of Innovation360. This region of your brain is known as the limbic system, and it rules over your emotions and memory. "Anything that’s a compound, complex movement is ideal for helping out with anxiety, because there is no way I can worry about a project at work and, say, stand in a complicated yoga pose," says Dr. Gilliland. And when it comes to providing that sweet, sweet neuro-distraction, no movement works quite as well as running.

Why, you ask? Dr. Gilliland says that running falls under a category of a movement known as "green exercise," or any workout that's done outdoors. "Green exercise requires us to use other parts of our brain. I’m looking for cars, other pedestrians. I’m running off of a trail, which means I’m using all of these other senses to know how the terrain changes. When we do that, we allow that anxious part of our brain to cool off and rest. That, neurochemically, is beneficial, because it’s not overheating with worry," says Dr. Gilliland.

"Green exercise requires us to use other parts of our brain... When we do that, we allow that anxious part of our brain to cool off and rest." —Kevin Gilliland, PsyD

As we log mile after mile, our brains continue playing the game of tweaking our strides based on the road ahead and it provides a pure and meditative form of distraction. "It’s even more than a distraction," says Dr. Gilliland. "Distraction is 'I’m not thinking about it,' but in this kind of distractions, we’re also not dumping all of those stress hormones into our bodies, of which cortisol is the worst." In fact, running produces those feel-good hormones (endorphins) that give you that extra pep in your step for the rest of the day.

It's worth noting that to get this particular benefit from running, you need to take off outside with the help of a running app, a podcast, or a bop-filled playlist. And once you do get out into the sunshine, you can add extra (good) distractions to your workouts by playing little games with yourself, like counting the stop signs you pass, dropping and doing five push-ups anytime you see someone with a red T-shirt, or taking the uphills at an increased pace, then recovering on the downhills.

Wrap up your last mile, and ride those feel-good endorphins. You deserve them.

Don't forget to cool down, runner:

More ways to cool down? Get a little help from professional stretchers, and choose the proper recovery tool for Y-O-U.

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