Whether you’ve experienced moments of fleeting anxiety, or suffer from anxiety disorder, we can all relate to the physical and mental feelings it triggers in some way. The racing heart, shallow breathing, panicked thoughts, inability to be rational and calm, sweaty palms… It’s not the most enjoyable experience.
But there’s good news for those of you who suffer from anxiety regularly or severely. Exercise can be extremely effective in reducing and preventing anxiety, both in chronic sufferers of anxiety disorders, and in day-to-day experiences of anxiety. Here’s how.
Exercise has been proven to reduce symptoms and feelings of anxiety, thanks to its impact on your brain and body. Aerobic exercise in particular – such as cycling, running or dancing – can reduce and ease anxiety, promoting feelings of wellbeing.
Exercise activates the regions of your brain which are responsible for your fear response, and basically determines whether you’ll enter a state of fight or flight, or remain in a state of calm. When your brain thinks you’re being threatened, you’re more likely to suffer from severe anxiety symptoms. Whereas when you’re in a rest and digest state, your body can reduce these feelings. Exercise gives you greater control over the activation of this stress pathway, allowing you to reduce symptoms of anxiety at the same time.
When you workout, your brain chemistry actually changes. You produce neurochemicals including serotonin and endorphins, both of which actively enhance feelings of happiness, calmness and wellbeing, and reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. So you’re quite literally “switching on” your happy hormones, to combat any experiences of chronic or acute anxiety you may be experiencing.
People who suffer from anxiety have been shown to be at a greater risk for other health conditions, including depression, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In fact, many anxiety sufferers have been found to live more sedentary lifestyles, which ironically worsens their symptoms of anxiety, and further increases their risk of these complications.
Given exercise is currently the most effective non-medical treatment for anxiety and its symptoms we have available, it’s so important that anyone suffering with this condition commits to a regular workout routine. Not only will this reduce anxiety symptoms, but it will also greatly reduce your risk of associated health conditions at the same time - win, win!
For many people, their workout is the one time of day which allows them to truly switch off and disconnect from the world and any racing thoughts, stress or anxiety they’re experiencing, and truly be present in the moment. Sweating it out, pushing your body, and enjoying the chance to move is the best way to get out of your head, and put those anxiety symptoms to bed.
Instead, you become more grounded, calm, and able to deal with any stressors or complications that may arise throughout the day, whether they be real or perceived. This moment in time where you’re distracted and diverted from whatever is causing you anxiety is so helpful in allowing you to regain control over your thoughts, and approach any situation with a clear, calm mind.
Sadly, there’s no way to wave a magic wand and watch everything causing you anxiety simply vanish into thin air. But exercise does leave you better equipped to deal with anything in your life which is triggering your experiences of anxiety.
Exercise has been shown to improve resilience against difficult emotions like anger and sadness, and leave you more able to deal with and process these when they arise. It’s also incredibly effective in reducing fatigue, and improving your alertness, concentration and cognitive function… all of which are essential when it comes to coping with symptoms of anxiety! When you’re chronically stressed or anxious, you’ll often find yourself low in energy, exhausted, unable to concentrate. But exercise can combat these effects, and even reverse them, helping you sleep, recover and think better.
Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease stress and tension, improve and stabilise mood, support sleep and increase self-esteem and confidence. Each of these results actively prevent symptoms of anxiety, by helping you remain calmer, more grounded, and less prone to irrational thought patterns. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise is enough to experience these benefits.
If you need more proof, evidence shows physically active people experience far lower rates of anxiety and depression compared to sedentary, non-active people. Not only is your brain physically better equipped to deal with stress and anxiety, thanks to the changes in brain chemistry you’re promoting, but you’re also more resilient and calm when you exercise consistently.
So how can you design an exercise routine which best supports your mental health, and reduces your symptoms of anxiety? There are some key considerations to take into account.
The type of exercise you choose surprisingly doesn’t play a huge role in the ability of a workout to reduce anxiety. Studies show all forms of exercise, from HIIT to cycling, can improve anxiety symptoms, so the most important question to ask yourself is: what will you most enjoy?
Developing a routine you can be consistent with is critical. And a key component of this is finding something you love and actually enjoy doing! Whether that’s swimming, rock climbing, hiking, running, weights… you name it, the main thing is you’re showing up, consistently, and reaping the benefits.
It’s important to acknowledge that anxiety can feel and present very differently for different people. So while exercise is a great way to manage and reduce your symptoms, it’s essential you check in with yourself in the moment to understand what your body needs most, so you can experience the maximal benefits.
For example, if your heart is racing, you’re immensely stressed, and you feel like you’re drowning, HIIT may not be what your body is crying out for… Instead of adding further stress to your system by pushing your body through intense, vigorous burst of exercise, why not opt for something centring, grounding and relaxing like yoga?
Or, if you’re feeling really low and down, maybe HIIT is exactly the burst of energy and vitality you need to reduce your anxiety symptoms!
Be sure to check in with yourself each time, to truly understand what your body is calling for.
You actually don’t need to hit the gym for long at all before you begin experiencing the benefits of exercise for your anxiety. Studies show the duration and intensity of your workout doesn’t hugely impact the effectiveness of the session on your anxiety. In fact, a short 10-minute walk is just as effective as a 45-minute sweat session.
So again, it comes down to what your body and mind need in the moment. And of course, consistency - because the more you show up, the longer-lasting the benefits you experience will become.
While you’re at it, there are certain things you can keep in mind when exercising with the intention to reduce anxiety:
Find a workout you love, so you can be consistent and develop improved resilience and prevent anxiety, as well as simply managing it when it presents itself.
Get your heart rate up. We know aerobic exercise is ideal for reducing anxiety, so get sweaty and feel the benefits fast!
Workout with a friend. Get your social support and your workout in at once, and boost feelings of connection, comfort and enjoyment as you do so.
Switch it up and head outdoors if you’re looking for another element to lower stress and reduce anxiety. Nature is fabulous for your mental health!
If it’s not helping, don’t be afraid to abandon your session. Aim for 10 minutes, and if the workout isn’t working for you, then your body may be calling for rest instead! That’s okay!
There you have it, exercise is your best friend for managing anxiety, making you better equipped to cope when it arises, and for preventing it altogether! Just in case you needed yet another reason to hit the gym on the reg, now you have it!
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If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, chat to a medical professional or reach out for support.
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