Can Exercise Help With OCD Symptoms?

Exercise offers a plethora of physical, mental, and emotional benefits, from mood support to better sleep (per Mayo Clinic). A 2017 study in General Hospital Psychiatry found that 12 weeks of moderate-intensity cardio exercise helped ease obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptom severity, depression, and anxiety in people with treatment-resistant OCD. The chronic mental disorder affects around 1 in 100 adults and 1 in 200 children in the U.S., according to Skyland Trail

OCD symptoms include compulsive behaviors like repetitive actions and thinking obsessive thoughts for at least one hour a day. Symptoms can vary in severity across individuals, and they can shift for individuals over time under the influence of life transitions. The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) says obsessive thoughts can cause intense emotional distress. Acting out compulsive behaviors are often attempts to quiet obsessive thoughts and decrease distress. If physical activity can help ease stress and anxiety, can exercise help manage OCD symptoms?

Cardio exercise can help OCD symptoms and anxiety

A 2019 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders indicated that 12 weeks of consistent cardio exercise could significantly boost mood and increase positivity in people with OCD. The study results also found that regular exercise reduced anxiety in participants, and anxiety levels progressively lessened over time as the exercise progressed. Researchers concluded that routines could be designed for "in-the-moment" use to improve mood, relieve anxiety, and reduce compulsive behaviors. While the researchers in the 2017 study published in General Hospital Psychiatry were unsure why exercise soothed OCD symptoms, they summarized that exercise could make existing treatments even more effective. 

While the details of exactly how and why exercise helps OCD symptoms remain shrouded, the way exercise affects the brain is well-documented. The Mayo Clinic explains that regular exercise floods the brain with cannabis-like feel-good endorphins and endogenous cannabinoids. These natural chemical compounds enhance feelings of well-being. 

Furthermore, exercising can draw your mind's attention away from problems and help you stay in the present moment. Exercising for 30 minutes three to five times a week can significantly reduce anxiety and depression. Still, you may see your mood improve with 10- or 15-minute sessions, especially if you're performing more physically taxing exercises. HealthCentral says mindful practices, like some forms of yoga, may also help curb intrusive thoughts and compulsions if you're not into aerobic exercise.