Exercise May Help Reduce OCD Symptoms

A woman trail running in the mountains.
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Engaging in aerobic exercise comes with many physical benefits including reduced cholesterol levels and a lowered risk of heart disease and diabetes. If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), there might be an additional benefit, a reduction of your symptoms. 

What the Research Says

Aerobic exercise can be used therapeutically to improve mild to moderate symptoms of depression, as well as reduce overall stress and anxiety levels. One study examining aerobic exercise and OCD symptoms asked participants to continue their usual treatment adding moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as running, to their treatment regimen for 12 weeks.

What they found was that the severity and frequency of OCD symptoms were reduced immediately following the exercise. In addition, the overall severity and frequency of OCD symptoms generally decreased over the 12 weeks of exercise. For some participants, these gains were still present six months after the study.

Another study conducted a similar test to see if a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and a customized 12-week exercise program made any difference in OCD symptoms. The exercises helped, making the 12-week program along with CBT a good therapeutic recommendation.

How Exercise Can Help

There are a number of ways in which exercise might help to reduce symptoms. Exercise can change your brain. Studies conducted on mice have shown that exercising on a running wheel helps them sprout new connections between neurons in their brains. Exercise may cause the release of “growth factors,” which trigger neurons to make new connections. These new connections may help to reduce symptoms of OCD. Exercise also promotes the release of endorphins, “feel good” neurochemicals, boosting mood and fending off stress.

Exercise can also help improve your self-esteem. If you start exercising regularly, you may find yourself feeling better both physically and mentally. These changes can help boost your self-confidence as well as decrease your stress—a major trigger of OCD symptoms.

Exercising can also make you more social. Whether it's getting out to the gym, meeting up with a running partner, or joining a sports team—exercising can help you be more outgoing. Getting out and connecting with people is a great means of social support. Having a strong support system, like boosting self-esteem, is another great way to reduce your stress levels. 

Not to mention, exercise can also provide a great distraction from any obsessions and compulsion you may be experiencing. Most vigorous forms of physical activity require your full attention, making it hard to focus on anything else. In this way, exercise could provide a welcome break from obsessions and compulsions, as well as give you a sense of control over your symptoms.

If you are thinking about adding exercise to your overall treatment strategy, ask your doctor which exercise program they'd recommend for you. You can also work with a personal trainer or take group fitness classes if you are new to working out.

1 Source
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  1. Abrantes AM, Brown RA, Strong DR, et al. A pilot randomized controlled trial of aerobic exercise as an adjunct to OCD treatment. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2017;49:51-55. doi:10.1016/j.genhosppsych.2017.06.010

Additional Reading

By Owen Kelly, PhD
Owen Kelly, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, professor, and author in Ontario, ON, who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders.