How to Fight Anxiety With Physical Exercise

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Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. They affect nearly 18% of adults and can present at any age. People who experience anxiety may worry excessively about everyday stressors like money, health, or family issues.

Anxiety disorders can also impact physical health, causing headaches, muscle tension, sleep problems, or nausea. These physical symptoms may even become severe enough to require medical treatment.

Psychiatry often treats anxiety with prescription medications that pack a variety of side effects. Fortunately, there are other ways to treat anxiety. Exercise is a natural, affordable, and accessible option. 

You may associate exercise with physical health benefits like weight loss. However, regular physical activity can also provide several mental health benefits. We’ll walk you through the ways regular exercise can positively impact your overall well-being.

Exercise & Brain Chemistry

Exercising sets off a number of physiological and neurological reactions in the body, many of which are beneficial. Here are some of the things that happen when we exercise:

  • Neurotransmitters are released, including serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These neurotransmitters help regulate mood. When exercising, they are responsible for the feeling of a “natural high.”
  • Circulation increases to certain parts of the brain. This aids in cognitive tasks, such as memory function and problem-solving.
  • Your body releases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). This hormone helps with learning new skills and forming memories. 
  • You get a rush of adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol is considered a stress hormone, but it also plays a role in the circadian rhythm. A spike of cortisol early in the day can actually help regulate cortisol levels and benefit your sleep.
  • Exercise increases Heart Rate Variability, which is an independent risk marker for vagus nerve function, stress, and recovery. 

Does exercise help with anxiety? Exercising can help you feel less anxious and happier overall. Regular exercise can positively impact neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form new connections between neurons), sharpen your memory, and improve cognitive function. Best of all, it can do this without the adverse side effects of psychiatric medications.

Exercising to Ease Anxiety

The physiological and neurological impacts of exercise speak for themselves. Yet the benefits of exercise extend even further. Exercise can improve your relationships — with yourself, with your anxiety, and even with others. Here are some of the ways it may do so:

Exercise as a Healthy Distraction

Exercise can be a healthy distraction from anxiety. It can help you feel more in control and reduce feelings of stress. Intentional exercise allows you to focus on your body and the present moment. This is an effective way to break out of an anxious thought spiral. 

In fact, exercise or movement can be part of the “3 3 3 Rule” for anxiety. The 3 3 3 Rule states that when feeling anxious, you should name three things you see, name three things you hear, and move three different parts of your body. 

This can help calm anxiety and clear your mind. It puts space between you and your anxious thoughts, giving you an opportunity to look at them more objectively.

Exercise as a Confidence-Builder

Exercise is a great way to boost your confidence. It can help you feel more comfortable in your own skin and give you the energy to be more active in your daily life.

You don’t have to run a marathon or go on a juice cleanse for exercise to make you feel good about yourself. Just walking for 30 minutes a day can improve your mood and build your self-confidence. This comes with a number of subsequent benefits, including:

  • Feeling less anxious about taking risks and facing challenges.
  • Being more likely to take on new opportunities. This helps you grow and expand your comfort zones, which can further reduce symptoms of anxiety over time.
  • Feeling happier overall. Confident people tend to report greater feelings of happiness, which helps reduce the stress that can contribute to anxiety symptoms.

Exercise for Social Support

Research shows that having a positive social support network can protect against symptoms of anxiety. Unfortunately, some people with social anxiety have difficulty in social interactions. Using exercise as a facilitator for social interaction, such as finding a workout buddy, can help. 

Having a partner or group to exercise with can help you stay motivated to maintain healthy habits. It also gives you the opportunity to be more open with your feelings.

When you’re working out with friends, you don’t have to pretend that everything is fine. You can admit that you’re not feeling great and need some encouragement. Your partner can offer support and even help you brainstorm new ways to deal with your stress or anxiety.

Does the type of physical activity matter?

We now know the extensive benefits of regular exercise. Not only are there acute (or short-term) advantages, but there are many long-term advantages to be gained as well.

You may be wondering, what exercise is best for anxiety? The short answer: any type of exercise that increases your heart rate can help improve anxiety. The most important factor in choosing an exercise routine is to find a form of exercise that you enjoy and can do consistently. 

This could mean a simple daily cardiovascular exercise, like brisk walking. Or, if you prefer variety, it may mean alternating different types of workouts. For instance, you could choose to rotate between weightlifting and an aerobic activity like biking.

Here are some popular exercises that you can choose from:  

Aerobic Exercise 

There are loads of options when it comes to aerobic exercise. Running, walking, cycling, swimming, and even resistance training can call be great aerobic exercises. One of the benefits of aerobic activity is that you can choose the level of difficulty. Here are some others:

  • Can be done indoors or outdoors
  • Performing the exercise outside can give you the additional benefits of being in nature
  • Forward ambulation (running, walking, or bicycling) has additional mental health benefits
  • Intensity can be adjusted from workout to workout according to your needs 

Martial Arts

Martial arts training include anything from kickboxing to tai chi. Each style of martial art has its own unique appeal. Most martial arts training, however, means a full-body workout involving strength, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility. More benefits to martial arts include:

  • Improved balance, coordination, flexibility, agility, and strength
  • Improved focus and concentration, increased confidence
  • Wide variety of styles to choose from
  • Can often be performed anywhere
  • Built-in social network by joining a gym and group classes
  • Training with a focus on self-defense can alleviate trauma-related anxiety or PTSD

Yoga

For many practitioners, yoga is a way of life. But even a casual yoga practice can have a lasting positive impact. Yoga helps you connect with your body and mind, allowing you to achieve physical and mental well-being. Other notable advantages include:

  • Can be performed anywhere
  • Improved core strength, flexibility, mobility, balance, and coordination
  • Grounding and connection to breath
  • Meditative and calming atmosphere
  • Built-in social network

HIIT: High-Intensity Interval Training

High-intensity interval training (or HIIT) is a great way to burn fat, build muscle, and get your heart pumping. This type of exercise involves alternating between periods of high-intensity exercise and low-intensity exercise. It’s great for people who prefer condensed, high-energy workouts.

  • Improved strength, muscle tone, and aerobic fitness.
  • Time-efficient: HIIT workouts can be done in 20 minutes or less. They pack a lot of action into a short period of time. 
  • Adaptable: There is a wide variety of high-intensity movements to choose from. You can choose higher or lower impact exercises, as well as target different body parts. Your workout is entirely customizable.
  • Improved weight loss: HIIT movements are highly effective at burning calories and fat. If losing weight is one of your objectives, this training style is a great way to do it.

How much exercise is recommended for anxiety? While even a short walk can improve anxiety symptoms, 30 minutes of exercise 3 days a week will give you the greatest benefits.

Starting an Exercise Routine

It can be difficult to decide where to start with a new exercise program. If you’re busy, it can seem impossible to find time for exercise. Choosing a workout or a gym can be intimidating. Even finding motivation can sometimes feel like a big task. Here are ways to overcome these obstacles. 

Take It Slow

Plan your exercise sessions according to your physical condition. If you aren’t accustomed to vigorous exercise, start with lower-intensity sessions (i.e. brisk walking instead of running). If a 30-minute session is difficult at first, consider breaking your thirty minutes up into 3 10-minute sessions instead. You’ll still get all the benefits! 

It’s also important to pay attention to your physical sensations while exercising. Feeling a little out of breath when you exercise is normal. But coughing, wheezing, or tightness in your chest are signs you need to slow down.

Try Different Things

Not everyone is built the same way. By trying different things, you can find out what works for your body and mind. Some people may find that swimming gives them less joint pain than running. Others may prefer the gentle, grounding movements of yoga over the intense bursts of HIIT. Still, others may prefer the satisfaction of heavy weightlifting.

Try a variety of exercises and stick with the ones that satisfy you.

Pick a Routine You Enjoy

When building a consistent exercise routine, it helps to do what you enjoy. If you dread jogging in the sun, for instance, you’re more likely to find excuses not to go. Rather than trying to force yourself into a routine you think you “should” do, focus on finding something you want to do.

Know You Won’t Always Be Motivated

When you start something new, it is easy to feel motivated at the beginning. It’s important to know that this motivation will come and go. Some days you won’t feel motivated at all, and that’s okay. This is normal. 

On days that you’re not feeling motivated, take the pressure off to perform perfectly. The important thing is to keep showing up. Even if you end up exercising only for 5 minutes, you can feel satisfied that you haven’t given up. 

If you miss a workout, give yourself some grace. You can get back into your routine tomorrow. Remind yourself that you’re building a habit and it takes time.

Phone a Friend

Having a support system can help you stay motivated. Finding an encouraging friend, family member, or coworker to exercise with can help you stay accountable to your goals. If you’re not sure who to ask, you can even start with an app. Many fitness apps have built-in networks with like-minded people you can talk to about your goals and progress.

Stay Consistent

It takes time for your body and mind to adjust to a new routine. It also takes time to see many of the benefits that come with regular exercise. At first, it might be uncomfortable. There’s a natural resistance to changing our habits. However, if you can stay consistent, you’ll reap the rewards.

One way to help consistency is to track your progress or reward yourself for showing up to each workout. You might check off each day you worked out on a calendar, or add a paperclip or penny to a jar. You can also give yourself something to look forward to, like a treat or a massage after X amount of workouts.

Before You Begin

Exercise has many benefits and can be a great treatment option for anxiety. However, you may still be wondering:

Can exercise cure anxiety? Research shows that exercise can prevent and greatly reduce anxiety for many individuals. However, some people may need to supplement exercise with other treatments like psychotherapy. 

If you feel that exercise might not be enough, consider talking to a mental health professional. A qualified counselor may help you supplement your lifestyle choices with other beneficial mental health treatments and even dietary recommendations.

Suitable exercise will be affected by any preexisting health conditions. If you’re already on anxiety medication, you may also be predisposed to certain health problems. In these instances, it’s best to seek medical advice from a qualified healthcare professional about what type of exercise might be right for you.

Have more questions? We’re here to help. Schedule a consultation with us to learn more about our unique approach to holistic health. And don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for more updates and helpful information.

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