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Can Regular Exercise Alleviate OCD Symptoms?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a complicated, time-consuming, and emotionally and physically taxing mental health condition characterized by unwanted and upsetting obsessions and/or compulsions. Stress and anxiety are usually precursors or “triggers” of intrusive thoughts, visions, emotions, urges, and fears, and/or repetitive behaviors (rituals or routines). Because one of the hallmark triggers and symptoms of OCD is angst, most experts consider it an “anxiety disorder.” OCD is often misunderstood and stigmatized, although it is a serious, life-altering condition that is unwanted and involuntary.

According to researchers, there are many “types” of OCD that can manifest in different ways. Although OCD is unique to the individual, certain things can trigger or worsen it such as a lack of sleep, an unhealthy diet, and a lack of regular exercise. Studies suggest that regular exercise is beneficial for everyone, not just people with OCD. However, physical activity, especially daily physical activity, is especially beneficial for people with OCD because of its energizing properties, and its ability to uplift one’s mood and regulate their behavior. Regular exercise has a host of amazing benefits, which is why it is often added to OCD treatment plans.

If you are wondering if and how regular exercise could or would be beneficial for your OCD, you have come to the right place. In this article, we will explore the benefits of regular exercise and how it can alleviate OCD symptoms.


Is Regular Exercise Good For OCD?

Yes, regular exercise is great for OCD!

In fact, regular exercise can alleviate OCD symptoms.

Exercise, regardless of the purpose, is a natural and effective way to improve your mental and physical health and well-being. Exercise eases anxiety, improves our mood, energizes and empowers us, and helps us cope with stress in a healthy way. It even helps us think more clearly and make better decisions in our lives. This is why it is an important tool for managing OCD.

Researchers have found that physical activity (or exercise) is an effective way to improve one’s mood. It can also distract us from worries, fears, stress, anxiety, and yes, OCD symptoms (obsession and/or compulsions). In other words, if you are busy exercising, you have little time to “fixate” or excessively worry about other things. Your mind and body are occupied, which makes exercising a good deterrent or distraction. Regular exercise can also keep your mood, self-esteem, and self-confidence high so you feel capable of winning the battle against your OCD symptoms. It is empowering for people with OCD.

Exercising provides them with some control over their lives. That feels good to anyone but especially for some battling a chronic illness like OCD. Regular also strengthens OCD sufferers mentally and physically so they have the energy to seek treatment or ask for help. Lastly, exercise can help keep your body fit and healthy. A fit and healthy body can help alleviate OCD symptoms.

So, yes, regular exercise is very good for OCD.

How Can Regular Exercise Benefit OCD?

The truth is it is hard to dismiss or ignore the mental and physical health benefits of regular exercise or physical activities. Movement is good for the mind and body regardless of one’s health status. The good news is that most people can partake in some form or level of activity, ranging from leisurely walking around the block, swimming a couple of laps in a pool, stretching, or practicing low-impact yoga, to running a marathon, participating in sports, performing cardio exercises, jogging around the neighbor, or working out at a gym. Even dancing is considered a form of exercise! Exercise comes in all shapes and forms and each one of them is beneficial for your mind and body.

Listed below are just some of the benefits of regular exercise:

  • Weight Loss

Exercising or “moving” on a regular basis can lead to the “shedding of some pounds” aka weight loss. Some OCD sufferers self-isolate in their homes, which means that they may not get enough exercise or “movement”, leading to weight gain or obesity. Exercising can help you lose excess weight, which can improve your mood, and help you feel more confident going out in public and socializing with others.

Losing excess pounds can help you stop obsessing over your weight because there will be nothing to obsess about if that is one of your “fixations.” However, it is important not to become obsessed with losing weight or exercising (compulsive exercising). Also, excessively using laxatives, restricting food intake, or exercising to lose weight could lead to an eating disorder like anorexia, bingeing and purging, or bulimia.

Thus, it is important to use caution or ask a friend to “monitor” you or hold you accountable to ensure that you do not transfer an obsession with your weight to an obsession with losing weight.

  • Better Sleep

Just as with people without OCD, getting quality sleep (“sound sleep”) can be beneficial for your mind and body. Regular exercise can help you sleep better and deeper at night. Many OCD sufferers experience insomnia due to excessive and non-stop, intrusive thoughts, fears, worries, urges, visions, emotions, and/or compulsions. In other words, their minds are constantly racing, preventing them from getting some much-needed quality sleep.

The thing is a lack of sleep not only triggers or worsens OCD, but also causes physical problems like daytime fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, moodiness, weight gain, mental confusion, irritability, paranoia, anxiety, or stress – all of which can wreak havoc on OCD symptoms. Regular exercise, on the other hand, can “tire you out,” so you sleep soundly all night long. The result? Better sleep, a clearer mind, a rested body, and fewer (or no) OCD symptoms.

Note: Refrain from exercising too close to bedtime, because doing so could actually trigger or aggravate your OCD symptoms, leading to an overstimulated mind and insomnia.

  • A Stable Mood

People with OCD tend to experience a mix of emotions, ranging from stress, anxiety, and irritability to confusion, sadness, and anger. These emotions can change from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, or week to week. So, it makes sense that many OCD sufferers are “moody.” Anyone would be “moody” with constantly fluctuating emotions! Well, regular exercise can remedy “unstable” moods or “moodiness.”

When you exercise your body unleashes a bunch of “really great” hormones (endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin), designed to uplift your mood and eliminate mood swings. These “happy hormones” can also reduce stress and pain – two catalysts for OCD. A stable mood can help OCD sufferers think more clearly and make better decisions.

Regular exercise can calm your mind, energize you, boost your self-esteem and self-confidence, give you a more positive perspective of yourself and the world around you, help regulate your moods, and alleviate your OCD symptoms. A Win! Win!

  • A Deterrent or Distraction

Believe it or not, regular exercise can be a deterrent or distraction, which is beneficial for people who are grappling with non-stop intrusive and repetitive obsessions and/or compulsions. When you exercise your mind is focused on something other than your obsessions and/or compulsions, thus, exercise becomes a deterrent or distraction. Also, if you are exercising, you are less likely to perform your normal rituals or routines.

  • Less Stress & Anxiety

Researchers have found that regular exercise can lower stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety are common triggers and symptoms of OCD. Exercising or “moving” can alleviate OCD symptoms by lowering stress and anxiety. When you exercise you release “happy hormones,” which can improve your mood, boost your self-esteem, and empower you to address your OCD symptoms and venture into the world with confidence.

  • A Sense of Achievement

Exercising can help any person, but especially a person with a chronic illness, like OCD, feel accomplished. More specifically, regular exercise can alleviate OCD symptoms but helping a person feel proud of themselves for “following through” and achieving something like going to exercise even when they do not “feel like it” or continuing to exercise in the midst of an OCD relapse. That is something to be proud of and exercise can help you feel that way. With more self-esteem and self-confidence, you will feel more prepared to tackle any of your OCD triggers and/or adversities.

  • Better Sex

Believe it or not, regular exercise can lead to a more enjoyable sex life. Regular exercise can energize you, uplift your mood, and improve your self-confidence when it comes to your physical appearance and your sexual performance, which in turn can lead to “better sex.” Some OCD sufferers are “fixated” on sex, so “better sex” (through regular exercise) can be a natural remedy for them.

More specifically, it could potentially stop you from obsessing about your sexual performance, and may even help with sexual arousal and/or sexual conditions like erectile dysfunction. Having a more full-filling sex life may be just what you need to get your obsession with sex (or any other obsession) back under control!

  • Empowerment

Exercising regularly can make a person with OCD feel empowered to seek OCD help or treatment. Exercising boosts your mood, energizes you, and makes you feel more confident – all of the ingredients needed to empower or encourage you to make positive changes in your life, such as seeking help. Standard OCD treatments involve psychotherapy and/or medication.

The first line of treatment is usually psychotherapy – i.e., cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure-response and prevention (ERP) therapy, and/or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). However, if that alone is ineffective, medications like antidepressants or antipsychotics are usually added to the treatment plan.

Many OCD sufferers also add in natural remedies and self-help tools like adopting a healthy diet, getting more sleep, utilizing healthy coping skills and strategies, reading books on OCD, joining OCD forums and/or listening to OCD podcasts, practicing yoga or mindfulness meditation, trying homeopathic methods, attending hypnotherapy or hypnosis, and/or investing in an online OCD treatment program like Impulse Therapy.

Regular exercise can empower you to take control of your OCD symptoms so you can have the life you want and deserve!

What Exercises Are Best For OCD Sufferers?

The good news is that regular exercise does not have to be strenuous or fast-paced. It can be whatever you need it to – just as long you are regularly moving. It is also important to consult with your doctor before increasing your exercise or starting a new exercise routine. Certain exercises are not safe or effective for certain health conditions, so it is imperative that you seek medical guidance in advance of changing your level or type of movement.

Listed below are different types of exercises that can help alleviate your OCD symptoms:

  • Aerobic/Cardio Exercises

Aerobic/cardio exercises include activities like jogging, sprinting, walking briskly, swimming, dancing, skiing, climbing stairs, using cardio equipment (i.e., an elliptical or treadmill), roller skating, rowing, hiking, wrestling, boxing, engaging in martial arts, biking, skateboarding, or playing sports (i.e., soccer, football, volleyball, gymnastics, basketball, softball, track and field, cheerleading, etc.). 

Basically, aerobic/cardio exercises are any exercise that gets you breathing harder and your heart pumping (an increase in heart rate), both of which can ease stress and anxiety – the same stress and anxiety that can trigger or worsen OCD symptoms. Engaging in aerobic/cardio exercises is also a good way to distract yourself from your obsessions and/or compulsions. 

If you are focused on these exercises, you have no time to obsess or “fixate” on this or that. You also are restricted from performing rituals or routines. Contrary to popular belief, these exercises can actually be a lot of fun – just pop on your favorite songs and/or turn on your favorite “True Crime” (or whatever you like) podcast and get to moving! Another great benefit of aerobic/cardio exercises? You can do them in the comfort of your home if you like with little-to-no out-of-pocket expenses!

  • Yoga 

Yoga may be one of the most low-impact, peaceful exercises on the planet! It is also great for OCD sufferers because it is designed to clear your mind, ease your stress and anxiety, and make you more in tune with the “present.” Yoga is a great exercise for OCD sufferers of all health and ability levels because most poses involve only stretching. 

Yoga involves both low-stress physical poses, deep breathing, and meditation. This activity is designed to improve your tolerance, strength, and internal homeostasis (balance). As a result, it is adept at improving one’s mood and lowering stress and anxiety. Lower stress and anxiety lead to fewer OCD symptoms! 

Click here for yoga poses based on abilities and skill levels.

  • Pilates

Pilates is another type of exercise that is beneficial for people with OCD. Pilates also involves a mixture of physical activity, deep breathing, and meditation. This activity can help improve your posture, tolerance, flexibility, and muscle strength, along with your mood. It can also ease your stress and anxiety so you are able to better manage your OCD symptoms. The result? A calmer mind and an increased ability to handle challenges or stressors that could trigger or exacerbate your OCD. 

Click here for pilates workouts based on abilities and skill levels.

  • Strength Training 

Strength training exercises can help alleviate OCD symptoms by making you mentally and physically stronger. This type of exercise helps build stamina, muscle strength, and tolerance. However, it can also ease stress and anxiety, while improving your mood. Lower levels of stress and anxiety, and a more stable mood can help ward off OCD relapses or “episodes.” In addition, gaining physical strength can boost your self-esteem and self-confidence, leading to a stronger mind to combat challenges that could trigger or worsen OCD symptoms. 

Click this YouTube video on strength training based on abilities and skills. 

  • Meditation

Wait…is meditation an exercise? Yes, it is. It is a mental exercise. 

Meditation is a good exercise for OCD sufferers because it helps them focus on the task at hand. It also improves concentration and supports mental health. Moreover, meditation can alleviate stress and anxiety, improve sleep quality, and trigger a sense of peace or relaxation in the mind and body. The goal of meditation is to clear the mind of extraneous “noise.” 

People with OCD have a lot of “noise” in their minds that prevents them from focusing on other things like their job responsibilities or household tasks. Meditation offers a natural remedy for OCD-related procrastination and distractions. Meditation can be performed at home, work, or in a class. 

Click here for meditation ideas based on abilities and skills. 

Did you know, our our self-help course has helped thousands of OCD sufferers better manage their symptoms?

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What Does the Research Say?

Researchers suggest that regular exercise causes the release of certain hormones and chemicals in the body that can ease anxiety, a common trigger and symptom of OCD. Also, according to researchers, physical activity (exercise) appears to offer short-term health benefits and may offer long-term health benefits for OCD sufferers. However, more research is needed due to the mixed results when studying the long-term benefits of using exercise for OCD. Still, study results are promising. Similarly, a recent study found that OCD sufferers, who exercise regularly, are more likely to experience a significant reduction in OCD symptoms than those who do not exercise.

Likewise, a 2019 study suggests that regular exercise could produce an “acute” or short-term alleviation of OCD symptoms, but that these effects may not last long-term. Once again more research is needed to determine long-term effects when it comes to OCD symptoms. Researchers also found that regular exercise and a healthy diet are valuable and effective additions to OCD treatment plans, and as such, can alleviate or reduce OCD symptoms.

Conversely, a 2018 review on OCD and exercise found that regular exercise has both short-term and long-term benefits when it comes to alleviating OCD symptoms and improving one’s mood. However, researchers still caution against using these study results as evidence that regular exercise aids in a long-term or indefinite reduction in OCD symptoms. More research is needed to make that determination.

Additionally, one study found that exercise programs can effectively reduce or alleviate OCD symptoms. However, researchers found that high-impact, high-intensity exercise programs were more effective in reducing OCD symptoms than low-impact, low-intensity ones. 


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DR. R. Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham has a B.A. in English, an M.M.F.T in Marriage and Family Therapy (Psychology), and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She is currently a medical, health & wellness contributor, copywriter, and psychological consultant

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