Mindset | Blog

Can Exercise Help My OCD?


By Kathleen Ririe

What if I told you that there was something you could do almost any place, any time, and at any or no cost that could help with your OCD? You would likely be excited to try it right away! Well, the great news is that there IS something that researchers are finding could possibly be just this beneficial. What is it- you ask? EXERCISE. Now wait just a moment- I know you may be thinking “I hate being sweaty”, or “My body doesn’t like to run”- but did you know that some of the positive effects of exercise can be seen in even just a few minutes of physical activity? Of course, as with all treatments, results will vary from person to person and researchers are not claiming a cure-all, but here is the scoop on why exercise just might be worth a second try!


What type of physical activity is beneficial? Studies show aerobic exercise may be the most effective at curbing symptoms of OCD, but don’t worry- this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to run out and buy leg warmers. Aerobic exercise means any movement that increases your body’s demand for oxygen. This can range from low-intensity activities like yoga or walking to high-intensity activities like running or High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Even routine household activities that boost your heart rate (like going up and down stairs, or mowing the lawn) can have positive effects. Additionally, multiple studies highlight the importance of enjoying the activity you choose for exercise. If you enjoy what you are doing then you will be more likely to make it a routine part of your life. If you are already great at exercising- perhaps try keeping an exercise journal to note how your OCD symptoms change with exercise. If you find a pattern in positive effects, then you may try experimenting with how different activities, times of day, intensities, etc. can boost those positive changes for you. Be a curious scientist! Explore and notice what is working for you and take advantage of that. 


The best place to exercise is wherever you are most likely to do it. Everyone is different and while some may enjoy a solo-at-home workout, others may be much more successful in a group setting such as a gym. Having a set time each day, a scheduled exercise class, or an exercise buddy can make it easier to be consistent. Contact with nature has also been shown to improve mood and increase healthy vitamin D levels. Getting a few minutes of movement outdoors can be especially good for mental health. Whether you love the outdoors or not, try to find a few minutes each day to move outside whether that is structured exercise or natural movement. It can be as easy as walking the long way into class or work as you open your awareness to the nature surrounding you. 


Many studies have shown that 30 minutes of exercise, 4-5 days a week is the secret recipe for success, however, new studies are showing that high intensity aerobic exercise may be effective at decreasing symptoms of OCD and other mental health disorders in as little as 10 minutes 3-4 times per week. You can also use intense exercise to alleviate immediate anxiety symptoms (Abrantes et al., 2019). For example, I have a friend who when she experiences extreme anxiety symptoms- she goes into the bathroom stall at work and does as many jumping jacks as she can for 1 minute. She has noticed this quick burst of movement loosens the grip of anxiety which allows her the head space to then use other techniques, like ACT therapy, to work through her obsessions. 


Although research on the effect of exercise on OCD is still fairly new, studies are showing promising results on large reduction of OCD symptoms following aerobic exercise (Bottoms et al., 2023) as well as increased positive effects on mood and wellbeing. In addition to alleviating OCD symptoms, exercise has many well documented physical and mental health benefits such as regulating stress, decreasing depression and anxiety, cardiovascular health, and improved sleep quality. 

A note of caution: 

  • Remember to take things slow. Be careful not to fall into the trap of assuming that MORE exercise will equate to MORE relief from OCD. Begin by slowly incorporating more physical activities that you naturally gravitate towards, adding more into your routine if you see positive effects. 
  • Be realistic in your expectations. As noted above, although exercise may produce alleviating effects on your OCD, the effects are likely to be slow and steady in coming and will not be the same for everyone. 
  • What if exercise makes my  OCD worse? If employing an exercise routine seems to exacerbate OCD/Scrupulosity symptoms for you or begins to feel like an obsession or compulsion in and of itself- reach out to your mental healthcare specialist to discuss physical movement options that will feel supportive for YOU! 
  • Don’t forget self-compassion! Some difficult emotions common to OCD/Scrupulosity such as guilt and shame have not been fully researched and may not decrease with exercise in a way that you hope. Be patient with yourself and use self-kindness through this process of experimenting with exercise. It may work wonders for you, but it may feel frustrating if you don’t see positive results. Try to notice these feelings without judgment and speak kindly to yourself as you would to a friend. 

Whether you identify as an “exerciser” or not- try thinking of ways to incorporate more movement into your routine. Your mind may thank you! Start small and be mindful of your results. Grab those gym shoes and get moving!


Abrantes, A. M., Farris, S. G., Brown, R. A., Greenberg, B. D., Strong, D. R., McLaughlin, N.

C., & Riebe, D. (2019). Acute effects of aerobic exercise on negative affect and

obsessions and compulsions in individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Journal of affective disorders, 245, 991–997. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2018.11.074

Bottoms, L., Prat Pons, M., Fineberg, N. A., Pellegrini, L., Fox, O., Wellsted, D., Drummond,

L. M., Reid, J., Baldwin, D. S., Hou, R., Chamberlain, S., Sireau, N., Grohmann, D., &

Laws, K. R. (2023). Effects of exercise on obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International journal of psychiatry in clinical practice, 27(3), 232–242. https://doi.org/10.1080/13651501.2022.2151474

Kazdin A. E. (2024). Interventions in everyday life to improve mental health and reduce

symptoms of psychiatric disorders. The American psychologist, 79(2), 185–209.


Szuhany, K. L., Steinberg, M. H., McLaughlin, N. C. R., Mancebo, M. C., Brown, R. A.,

Greenberg, B. D., Simon, N. M., & Abrantes, A. M. (2023). Predictors of Long-Term

Exercise Engagement in Patients With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: The Role

of Physical Activity Enjoyment. Behavior therapy, 54(4), 610–622.


Unsure of what exercise may suit you? Try one of these quizzes to get ideas!



Photo by Delphine Beausoleil on Unsplash

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