Exercise Is Better Than Xanax: How Workouts Banish Worries

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New Yorkers are having a passionate love affair with Xanax. But exercise can be even more effective than drugs for preventing and easing it. Experts explain.

exercise and anxiety
 Fitness Rx: Working out can yield "clinically significant" reductions in elevated anxiety levels


New York Magazine's recent cover story would have us believe that New Yorkers are having a passionate love affair with Xanax.

And Ahalife's new jewelry line fetishizes the whole family of anti-anxiety drugs, suggesting we've all become pill-poppers in our age of uncertainty.

But here's something that the anxious masses may need to be reminded of: There's a large body of evidence that suggests that exercise can be even more effective than prescription drugs when it comes to preventing and easing anxiety.

"Several studies have found the effects of aerobic exercise to be initially similar to those of medication," explains Jeff Dolgan, an exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch Hotel & Spa in Miami Beach. "However, in the long term, exercise seems to work better." Especially because over time, your brain becomes resistant to a drug's effects (but not to spinning).

For example, one study completed at Appalachian State University in 2008 randomly assigned individuals with "high anxiety sensitivity" into exercise and non-exercise groups. The group who exercised reported significantly less anxiety afterwards than the coach-potato set. Another 2008 study conducted at Southern Methodist University found that after a two-week exercise intervention, the participants who exercised had "clinically significant" reductions in their elevated anxiety levels, while the sedentary control group did not.

bad habit necklaces
Wearing one of these charms sold on Ahalife.com won't help with your level of anxiety, but a spin class should

So why does exercise calm our nerves?

Dolgan says several mechanisms may be at play, some of which are physical, like the release of feel-good hormones (endorphins and neurotransmitters), a reduction in inflammation, and the calming effect of a high body temperature. Others are psychological, such as a confidence boost and the distraction from daily worries while you focus on burning calories (and your rockin' playlist).

To reap the maximum benefits, says Dolgan, you should exercise on a regular basis and at medium-to-high intensity.

"Think of exercise being dosed through your body as a medicine," he explains. "If you take a medicine today, the effects on your system usually last 18–24 hours. The effects of exercise are similar in that if more than 24 hours go by without stimulating the system, the effects wear off."

And while most research has focused on aerobic workouts for reducing worry, Dolgan says the most important thing is to find a workout you enjoy so that you'll be more likely to stick with it. It may be a little bit harder than calling in your prescription to Duane Reade, but you'll be a happier, healthier person in the long run. —Lisa Elaine Held

Has exercise helped you take the edge off, keep your cool, or stop worrying? Tell us what worked in the Comments, below!

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