Anxiety Disorders

Why Physical Activity is Important to People with Anxiety Disorders

Being physically active increases blood circulation to the brain, which has the potential to reduce anxiety, depression and negative mood swings.  This, in turn, can boost a person's self-esteem and reduce social isolation.

Exercise is also considered vital for maintaining mental fitness, and it can reduce stress. When stress affects the brain, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. If your body feels better, so does your mind. Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins - chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers — and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.

Physical Activity Tips and Modifications for People with Anxiety

Anxiety disorders can be unpredictable and change frequently, so make sure you are always aware of the person's strengths and weaknesses on that particular day. Patience and understanding can help you to meet the person’s needs on their own terms.

Teaching and Communication Techniques for Physical Activity Leaders

  • Involve the person in physical activity goal-setting - make sure goals are realistic. It may be helpful to provide some options for goals which they can choose from.
  • Educate the individual and their family about the importance of physical activity.
  • Know the individual's strengths and limitations - remember that everyone will have different limitations. Provide positive encouragement and support at all times.
  • Be patient. Listen to the person and encourage them to communicate their needs to you - they are the experts at what they need, not you!

 The following are ideas for ensuring maximum participation for people with anxiety disorders, depending on their abilities. You can use these strategies in combination:

  • Memory - write instructions down.
  • Inattention - minimize distractions during the activity, and try to keep things consistent.
  • Limited concentration - provide frequent breaks and opportunity for rest.
  • Physical limitations and fatigue - modify aspects of the activity to match with the person's physical abilities to promote success (i.e. lighter equipment, change the size of activity area).
  • Emotional - encourage success and mastery during physical activity in order to boost self-esteem, no matter what level (low or high) they may reach. It is important that they do not feel they have failed in any way.
  • Social behaviour - use smaller groups, modelling a supportive approach and patience. Provide a structured environment, with frequent milestones as determined by the individual.
  • When leading activities outdoors, ensure participants wear sunscreen, protective clothing, sunglasses and a hat because certain medications may make a person more susceptible to sunburn;

More About Anxiety Disorders

This tip sheet is designed to provide some general information about anxiety disorders. Concepts outlined in this paper should not be used as strict definitions or rules applicable to all those affected, but merely as guidelines. Every person is different. Remember, participants themselves are your number one resource when trying to ensure the inclusiveness of your physical activity programs.

In the mental health field, we practice the recovery model. According to Toward Recovery and Mental Health: A Framework for a Mental Health Strategy for Canada, ”Recovery is understood as a process in which people living with a mental illness are empowered and supported to be actively engaged in their own journey of wellbeing."   The recovery process builds on individual, family, cultural and community strengths and enables people to enjoy a meaningful life in their community while striving to achieve their full potential. Recovery doesn’t mean “cure,” although cure is possible for some people.

People with anxiety disorders may seem fearful or over-reactive. Clients may appear to be resistant to your suggestions. It is important to understand that often this behaviour is not intentional. They may also have poor short-term memory. People with anxiety disorders may not have good attendance due to the episodic nature of mental health issues. You need to be patient and encouraging but respect that the individual may understand that their fears are exaggerated, but they may have little ability to control their unrealistic fears. Their attendance may also be impacted during episodes by frequent medical appointments. People may exhibit repetitive behaviours used to calm themselves.

Patience and understanding are the best tools for working with individuals. Good communication is key to developing a successful working partnership.

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

An anxiety disorder is a mental health disability that causes constant and overwhelming anxiety and fear.  A person with an anxiety disorder has a reduced ability to cope with stressors and a heightened awareness that can lead to crippling fears and phobias.  Anxiety disorders can also include clinical depression.

Impact of Anxiety Disorders

People's abilities may be greatly affected by an anxiety disorder. Symptoms can be severe or mild and may vary greatly from one day to the next. Common issues faced may include:

  • hypervigilance, being easily startled and finding noisy rooms uncomfortable;
  • cognitive (problems with memory, initiation, concentration, organization, and comprehension);
  • panic attacks which include an impending sense of doom, elevated heat rate, sweating and chest pain which can mimic a heart attack;
  • behavioural (depression, irritability, inability to sit still).

A person with an anxiety disorder may present with a combination of the above issues, and that combination may change from one day to the next. They may exhibit compulsive behaviours as coping mechanisms to deal with their anxiety. They may also have reduced self-esteem or motivation. It is quite common for people to experience depression as a result of their anxiety disorder.

Useful Information About Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders often appear first during one’s teenage years but may also be related to having experienced psychological trauma or abuse. Some people respond well to the treatments and medications available and may appear to be functioning quite normally on many days but may show signs and symptoms on other days. In some cases, the side-effects of the medications used to manage symptoms can cause unique problems. A condition called Metabolic Syndrome may occur in which uncontrolled weight gain can happen regardless of healthy eating habits or lifestyle habits. Other side effects can be slurring of speech, uncontrolled movements such as twitches or a foot-dragging shuffle. There are a whole range of other tools that can be utilized to help the person such as counselling, self-help/mutual aid groups, lifestyle changes and stress management techniques. Some individuals may appear well but are secretly having issues with their limitations and wish not to share their personal health status. You must respect their right to privacy should they choose not to disclose their condition or its current status.


Canadian Mental Health Association -
National Network for Mental Health -
Overview of Anxiety Disorders -
Exercise for Stress and Anxiety -
Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders -
Self-management of mood and/or anxiety disorders through physical activity/exercise -

Helping Canadians with Disability/Chronic Disease Get Physically Active

For Canadians with a disability, regular physical activity may be even more important than it is for the rest of the population. For a person with a disability, an active lifestyle can open doors to increased health, social inclusion and self-empowerment - doors which might otherwise remain closed. Access to physical activity can eliminate the likelihood of acquiring secondary health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease. Being active builds resiliency and can provide an all-important outlet for a person with a disability.


This project would not have been possible without the expertise of our partners. ALACD would like to sincerely thank these organizations for working with us to develop this resource: the Ontario Blind Sports Association, Variety Village, the National Network for Mental Health, and the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.