Reducing Anxiety With Relaxation or Exercise

by Shirley Archer, JD, MA on Jan 21, 2015

If your clients feel that “nothing is going their way” and “everyone is against them,” maybe what they need is a few minutes of exercise or relaxation. This can reduce the tendency to view new circumstances negatively, according to a study published in PLOS ONE (2014; 9 [7], e99902).

One reason people suffer from excess anxiety is that they tend to interpret neutral situations as threatening. This stimulates a vicious cycle, because as anxiety increases, people are more likely to perceive fresh circumstances as hostile, and eventually the fear that builds up can become overwhelming.

Recent research by Adam Heenan, PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has found that for some individuals exercise or relaxation can alter the tendency to see settings negatively.

“We wanted to examine whether people would perceive their environment as less threatening after engaging in physical exercise or after doing a relaxation technique that is similar to the breathing exercises in yoga (called progressive muscle relaxation),” said Heenan in a news release from Queen’s University.

“We found that people who either walked or jogged on a treadmill for 10 minutes [while being shown full-body stick figures] perceived these ambiguous figures as facing towards them (the observer) less often than those who simply stood on the treadmill [and were shown the figures]. The same was true when people performed progressive muscle relaxation.”

The scientists noted that when a viewer perceives an ambiguous figure as facing toward, rather than away, from him or her, it suggests that the viewer is seeing the figure as a threat. Study results showed that engaging in a few minutes of exercise or relaxing breathing techniques reduced this tendency to perceive an uncertain situation as a threat.

Heenan said, “This is a big development because it helps to explain why exercising and relaxation techniques have been successful in treating mood and anxiety disorders in the past.”

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About the Author

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA's mind-body-spirit spokesperson. She is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher and an award-winning author based in Los Angeles, California, and Zurich, Switzerland. Two of her books, The Walking Deck and The Strength and Toning Deck, are now featured as iPhone apps. Contact her at