Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Can Exercise Help with OCD?

4 min read
Patrick McGrath, PhD

If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), someone might have recommended that you try exercising. It’s such a basic suggestion that you might feel inclined to dismiss it, but there actually is a lot of science behind it.  

Exercise is a natural reducer of stress and anxiety. Scientists say that when your body is active, your mind releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins that decrease tension, lift your mood and reduce discomfort. It’s not a cure, but it can help ease some symptoms. 

Interested in trying it out? Here’s what you need to know.

OCD and exercise: The research

Scientists have found that exercise, when used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, can support faster and more lasting recovery from OCD.

One study, led by Dr. Ana Abrantes of Butler Hospital in Rhode Island, showed that adding exercise to an OCD treatment regimen can lead to better results. Her study participants engaged in moderate aerobic exercise in addition to a formal treatment plan of therapy and/or medication. In the end, 30% of those participants reported a decrease in depression, anxiety and OCD symptoms. 

In a follow-up study by the same team, when people with OCD used aerobic exercise to boost their heart rate, their OCD symptoms decreased faster than the symptoms of people who only saw a health counselor.

Exercise and treatment-resistant OCD

Another study followed a group of people whose OCD continued to bother them significantly despite treatment. The study leader, Dr. Richard Brown of Columbia University, enrolled those 15 people in a 12-week program of aerobic exercise. The participants noticed significant improvement three weeks, six weeks and even six months after the end of the trial.

Incorporating exercise in your OCD treatment

As you’ve probably noticed, none of the above studies replace OCD treatment with exercise. Physical activity isn’t a substitute for a proven therapy like exposure and response prevention (ERP) and it doesn’t mean you can stop taking any medications your therapist or doctor may have prescribed.

What it does mean is that if you add exercise to your daily routine, you may experience an overall decrease in your OCD-related anxiety. If nothing else, getting active might reduce your general day-to-day stress, which can make it easier to manage your OCD symptoms.

How to do it

One of the best things about exercise is that it’s accessible to nearly anyone. You don’t need to pay for a gym membership or even get up at 4:30 a.m. to run several miles. In fact, just five minutes of exercise can start to reduce your anxiety levels.

The most important thing is to get your heart rate up. These kinds of workouts have been known to stabilize mood, decrease tension and even improve sleep. 

There are plenty of options for aerobic exercise. Find one that you enjoy. If you look forward to getting active, you’ll be more likely to keep up the habit. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Go for a run
  • Learn to jump rope
  • Ride your bike 
  • Do some jumping jacks
  • Take up rollerblading or roller skating

If you get intimidated thinking of something to do, try downloading one of the many free workout apps out there. You’ll find hundreds of varied, engaging workouts designed for you to do from the comfort of your home.

Also, consider adding strength training to your routine. It’s satisfying and, according to Justin Strickland of the University of Kentucky, it’s an effective way of reducing anxiety.

Don’t worry — you don’t need expensive equipment or even hand weights. You can use the weight of your own body with exercises like push-ups, squats and the infamous “burpees.” Of course, if you do have access to equipment and know how to use it correctly, feel free to do so.

Some final thoughts

There is no magic bullet for OCD, and exercise is no exception. Increasing your heart rate and breathing deeply can reduce anxiety and stress, but it’s not an off switch for your symptoms. In fact, using exercise that way can be dangerous because it can easily turn into a compulsion. If you decide to exercise as a helpful habit, be careful not to “need” it whenever you have an intrusive thought.

Finally, no matter how much you run, bike or dance around your living room, it won’t get rid of your OCD on its own. You still need an OCD-specific therapeutic plan, preferably something that includes ERP.  

ERP is the gold standard for OCD treatment. It teaches you to tolerate your OCD symptoms without compulsions or avoidance, putting you back in control. To learn more about how you can try ERP with a skilled and experienced therapist, talk with a member of the NOCD team today.

Patrick McGrath, PhD

Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."

ERP Therapy
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
OCD Symptoms

NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCD

View all therapists
Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Network Clinical Training Director

I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Director of Therapist Engagement

When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

Andrew Moeller

Andrew Moeller

Licensed Therapy, LMHC

I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.

Want to work with one of our therapists?
Schedule a free call to learn more.