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Exercise May be an Important OCD Self Help Strategy

Adding Exercise to Your Overall OCD Self Help Strategy May Reduce OCD Symptoms


Updated June 13, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Most of us are familiar with the many physical benefits of aerobic exercise, including reduced cholesterol levels and lowered risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, there is growing evidence that exercise is an important OCD self help strategy for reducing OCD symptoms.

Exercise may be an Important OCD Self Help Strategy

It is now known that aerobic exercise can be used therapeutically to improve mild to moderate symptoms of depression, as well as reduce overall stress and anxiety levels. Recently, preliminary studies have also examined whether aerobic exercise is helpful in reducing the severity of OCD symptoms. In these studies, participants continued with their usual treatment but added moderate intensity aerobic exercise, such as running, to their treatment regimen for 12 weeks.

Researchers found that severity and frequency of OCD symptoms was reduced immediately following the exercise. In addition, the overall severity and frequency of OCD symptoms generally decreased over the 12 weeks of exercise therapy. For some participants, these gains were still present 6 months after the exercise intervention.

Although the results so far are promising, it needs to be remembered that these studies looked at only a very small number of people and further investigation is needed.

Nevertheless, there are a number of ways in which exercise might help to reduce symptoms of OCD:

Exercise changes the brain: It has been shown that mice exercising on a running wheel sprout new connections between neurons in brain. Exercise may cause the release of what are called “growth factors,” which trigger neurons to make new connections. These new connections could help to reduce symptoms of OCD. Exercise also promotes the release of endorphins, which are “feel good” neurochemicals.

Exercise improves self-esteem: Those who exercise feel better about themselves and are more confident. This enhanced sense of self-esteem and confidence may help individuals better cope with stress, a major trigger of OCD symptoms.

Exercise is a social activity: Exercise usually involves getting out to the gym, meeting up with a running partner, or joining a sports team. Getting out and connecting with people is a great means of social support. Effective use of social support is perhaps the biggest way to ward off the negative effects of stress.

Exercise provides a distraction: Most vigorous forms of physical activity require that our attention be focused on what is happening “in the moment.” 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 thinking about adding exercise to your overall treatment strategy, be sure to speak with your doctor to make sure this strategy is right for you.


Abrantes, A.M., Strong, D.R, Cohn, A., Cameron A.Y., Greenburg, B.D., Mancebo, M.C., Brown R.A “Acute changes in obsessions and compulsions following moderate intensity aerobic exercise among patients with obsessive compulsive disorder” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 2009 23: 923-927.

Brown, R.A., Abrantes, A.M., Strong, D.R., Mancebo, M.C., Menard, J., Rasmussen, S.A., & Greenberg, B.D. “A pilot study of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for obsessive compulsive disorder” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders 2007 195: 514-520.

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